Is Kindle the perfect learning appliance?

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The devices that we use to access content are getting smaller and smaller. One could make the case that the iPod Touch and the iPhone are in fact small pocket computers, and one wouldn’t be far from the truth. (The coming update to the iPhone operating system promises to allow, among other things, the ability to cut and paste text.) In the past couple of years, another type of small computer has made a splash in the marketplace, the Amazon Kindle and its raft of look-alike, e-ink and Linux-driven brethren. This group of “other” devices includes the PRS series of readers from Sony (including the 700 series with touchscreen), the BeBook and its standard and pocket-sized editions, the CyBook, the eSlick, and the Cool-er, all branded versions of the Netronix ereader with e-ink screen but no wifi, web browser, or touchscreen.

Of course, laptops themselves are getting smaller. The Asus Eee and the new wave of inexpensive netbooks challenge ereaders and iPod variants for a spot at the low end of the cost continuum and for space in the user’s backpack. Netbooks are now being offered by wireless providers like Verizon for less than $200, the cost of an iPhone, and well below the cost of any current e-ink ereader. With full operating systems and full internet connectivity, aren’t these devices the best choice for students who require word processing, email, and other services for school?

The answer is yes…and no. Let me tell you why.

However you cut it, the real utility of a learning appliance has to do with two things: its adaptability to academic tasks and its portability. Why does portability matter? If a learning appliance can’t be used at school and at home and at every place in between, it only supports part of the learning process (that part which requires a computer) and none of the others (the parts that require other things, like books, pencils, erasers). The primary obstacle to portability for a laptop computer is its relatively high power requirement. You may get a few hours from your laptop battery but, absent an outlet, the laptop as learning appliance goes dead at some point.

The laptop also gets a knock against it because it is not really adaptable to a primary academic task: reading. It seems like no surprise that as students’ time spent on a computer has risen, their reading skills (and scores) have dropped. [see ACT report, as well as To Read and others] The kind of access to information that students have through computer networks requires a bunch of skills that seem appropriate to living in the midst of an information explosion, but one skill that is not brought into play in this environment is what has been termed “long form” reading, meaning the kind of reading that one does when absorbed in a novel. “Short form” reading, yes, but not its more venerable counterpart.

Why is long form largely excluded when a laptop is the primary learning appliance? Screen fatigue. The backlit laptop screen produces eye fatigue and other kinds of reading ennui that I can’t quite define. Maybe it’s like stting in a motionless Ferrari listening to the radio. It is hard to fully engage with the experience without firing up that beautiful machine and taking off. Maybe it’s also the shape of the thing (the laptop, not the Ferrari), not easy to hold in one hand or cradle on your stomach in the hammock. In any case, it is hard to find anyone willing to make a strong case for “long form” reading on a backlit laptop computer screen.

So where does that leave us? Laptops do more than ereaders, but the power drain is high and a primary academic function, reading, is not adequately supported. Ereaders do less than laptops (or iPhones), but their power requirements are strikingly lower and they do promote long form reading. But how much less than a laptop does an ereader like the Kindle do? (Note that as of this writing, only the Kindle can be used for this comparison. In 12-18 months, however, a whole new generation of ereaders with larger screens and wifi options will make this argument valid for the bulk of available ereaders.) The Kindle does have basic internet access, so live links to internet resources can be utilized, but only in a slow and monochromatic way. The Kindle is no match for the laptop as regards onboard software that supports, well, almost any purpose. You could do the reading for your English or history class on a Kindle, but you couldn’t write your paper on it. Nor could you email it to your teacher, or upload it to a proofreading site, or copy and paste a quote from Churchill into it–none of these. Once you had read the book, you would still have to find a word processor and a printer or email connection to complete and submit your assignment.

But, when you think about it, you have to leave your laptop right now and use another appliance (better known as the book itself) in order to complete the same academic task. So maybe this isn’t an either/or between laptops and ereaders after all. Maybe it is the case that all or most academic tasks require (and will continue to require) more than a single appliance. That it probably the long and short of it.

But if you only had one, which would it be?

My modest proposal at this point is…the Kindle. Why? Because the Kindle supports the ongoing, critical academic function known as long form reading. It supports easy and rapid distribution of content (like the laptop), and it does allow limited access and interactivity with the resources of the internet. It works for days rather than hours in the absence of an electrical outlet. It is small and light. It is designed for onboard dictionaries and lookup functions that support the needs of the reader. It readily supports resizing of text.

It does all these things, but make no mistake, the key to my choice of the Kindle is its support for long form reading.

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