(I have shared the following as a new post on the TechLearning blog, but because of problems with the commenting setup there I am cross-posting here so you can leave comments if desired.)

This past week, thanks to Bob Sprankle’s “geek of the week” on the May 8th edition of the Bit by Bit podcast, I learned about the new website “Read The Words.” After registering for a free account, I was able to upload two articles I have wanted to read for several weeks but haven’t made the time, and had the site convert them into mp3 audio files. One of these articles was originally in PDF format, the other was in Microsoft Word format. One article was fifteen pages long, the other was 31 pages. In both cases, the text to audio conversion process took just a few minutes. After the files were converted, the website allowed me to download an mp3 version of each article.

Read The Words - My Recordings

I opened the converted mp3 audio files in iTunes, created a new playlist for the files, and then synchronized iTunes to my iPhone. As a result of these steps, which took about ten minutes, I was able to listen to both of these articles in the car this week as I drove to and from a regional educational technology conference.

I find this ability and functionality to transform any text document into a computer-read, portable audio file absolutely amazing! While it is true listening to one of these computerized voices is NOT as pleasant or “natural sounding” as listening to a real person read, the audio quality is very understandable. I am not an entirely auditory learner, of course, but I find I am able to learn a great deal listening to podcasts and audio books on my portable mp3 players. I wish this functionality had been available to me when I was still completing coursework in graduate school! I am sure I would have been selective in choosing to LISTEN rather than read assigned articles from my instructors, but I am equally sure I would have chosen to do so in many cases. If you are a student, teacher, instructor or professor reading or sharing articles which are available as digital text (NOT scanned as images) I encourage you to check out Read The Words. I am not affiliated in any way with this website, other than having a free account on it myself, but I am thoroughly enamored with the functionality this free web service provides. There are several client-side software programs which provide similar text to audio file conversion functionality, like 2nd Speech Center. Browser plug-ins like Speak It and CLiCk, Speak are available as well which convert webpage text into audio, but not into downloadable audio files. “Read the Words” is the first free, entirely web-based service I have seen which converts text files in various formats to downloadable mp3 files. Links to additional programs are available on the Maine VRC website.

This experience reminds me of a central theme in Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book “Being Digital.” When we convert ideas into digital forms (ones and zeros) we open the door to an almost unlimited menu of communication possibilities with that content. In chapter one of the book, Negroponte wrote:

The information superhighway is about the global movement of weightless bits at the speed of light. As one industry after another looks at itself in the mirror and asks about its future in a digital world, that future is driven almost 100 percent by the ability of that company’s product or services to be rendered in digital form. If you make cashmere sweaters or Chinese food, it will be a long time before we can convert them to bits. “Beam me up, Scotty” is a wonderful dream, but not likely to come true for several centuries. Until then you will have to rely on FedEx, bicycles, and sneakers to get your atoms from one place to another. This is not to say that digital technologies will be of no help in design, manufacturing, marketing, and management of atom-based businesses. I am only saying that the core business won’t change and your product won’t have bits standing in for atoms.

In the information and entertainment industries, bits and atoms often are confused. Is the publisher of a book in the information delivery business (bits) or in the manufacturing business (atoms)? The historical answer is both, but that will change rapidly as information appliances become more ubiquitous and user-friendly. Right now it is hard, but not impossible, to compete with the qualities of a printed book.

Since Negroponte penned (or most likely keyboarded) those words published in 1995, a great deal has changed in our information landscape. I find his ideas prophetic, however, as I continue to experience and benefit from my growing digital access to information and ideas.

Here is a classroom analysis challenge for you: How much of the information and ideas you exchange with students is available only in an “atomic” form, and how much is available optionally or exclusively in a “digital” form? I think a hallmark of 21st century education is the provision of course and curriculum content in digital forms. When the information is digital, our opportunities to consume, interact with, share, and further process that information grow by leaps and bounds.

Most likely, the majority of people reading this blog post in 2008 were predominantly schooled in the “atomic” age of the 20th century. We are living and quickly moving forward into the “digital” age of the 21st century. I love paper-based, atomic books as well as “atomic” artifacts from the past, but I also love the flexibility and possibilities for differentiated learning which digital texts offer.

What have your experiences been with digital texts? Are you consuming more digital rather than printed texts these days, via your computer and/or smartphone? How about your students? As Alan Kay has observed, the predominant technology in the classroom defines the predominant learning tasks of students and teachers. As more schools embrace 1:1 learning initiatives and mobile devices capable of accessing the Internet become more ubiquitous, our opportunities to consume as well as create digital texts will continue to increase. To be relevant educators in the 21st century, we need to continue exploring, understanding, and utilizing tools which permit us to blend learning interactions with information and ideas in both “atomic” and “digital” forms.

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