E-Rate 2.0 and the Kindle

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There is interesting coverage over at Ars Technica of a recent development in the federal government’s program to support technology purchases in schools, known as the Universal Service Fund’s “E-Rate” program. Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-MA) introduced H.R. 4619 on Tuesday, called the E-Rate 2.0 Act. The goal is to update the “successful” E-Rate program, introduced as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, that has resulted in 95% of American schools gaining access to the internet today. According to Congressman Markey, “with the expansion of the scope of technology, students need more than just Web access at school, and our E-Rate 2.0 bill is intended to reflect those expanded needs.” Read the complete press release here.

The new bill has three key provisions. First, the bill would instruct the FCC to initiate a pilot program to provide “vouchers to enable low-income students to purchase residential broadband service.” Second, the FCC would also initiate a pilot program to “extend funding for broadband equipment and services to selected community colleges and head start facilities.”

It is the third provision that interests us here at Edukindle. Under the bill, the FCC would initiate a pilot program that would allow applicants serving particularly low-income students to “apply for significantly discounted services and technologies for the use of e-books.” That idea could prove a tremendous boon to those schools who see a future in ebooks for their students, and who want to leverage the sustainability, the affordability, and the “update-ability” of ebooks on behalf of these children.

Leave aside the fact that the device manufacturers should already be providing educational discounts to schools, as I argued in an earlier post entitled “Should Educators Get a Discount on the Kindle?” Of course they should. And if the E-Rate 2.0 legislation becomes law, you can bet that there will be a tsunami of discounts offered by equipment makers who want to get in on the billions of dollars offered under the program. (Oh, yeah, the bill also seeks to raise the current cap of $2.25 billion on E-Rate spending to adjust for inflation.)

Where this proposed legislation gets interesting, though, is when viewed in the context of other events driving the world of education right now. In recent months, large entities like the State of California have initiated programs to support the use of “open source” texts to replace traditional textbooks in the schools in order to save money and take advantage of the growing movement to create high quality materials at no cost to the user.

Just last summer, the Democratic Leadership Council floated a proposal entitled “A Kindle in Every Backpack” (which you can download here in Kindle format), arguing in part that “the ‘Kindle in every backpack’ concept isn’t just an educational gimmick—it could improve education quality and save money.”

Bringing ebooks into classrooms effectively and pervasively, though, will require more, a lot more, than funding for devices. The state of the art right now in terms of materials that can be used right away in classrooms is pretty much limited to novels and nonfiction texts–whole books, that is, where reading from one page to the next is the required activity.

For educational texts that require charts, graphs, and images, a device like the Kindle has a long way to go, and I mean more than simply adding color. Reference works like textbooks require different chunking or configuration when they are displayed on an ereader. Anyone who has attempted to read a PDF document, even on the Kindle DX, can tell you that formatting and navigation tools are not yet up to snuff.

Don’t get me wrong. Once money starts to flow to ebook resources and devices, the marketplace will work this out. But it will involve more heavy lifting than anyone imagines.