Electronic texts are consumable today with a variety of hardware devices, but the size, power, and versatility of today’s devices is likely to be laughable in ten to twenty years. Now that I have an iPhone, I find it easier than ever to catch up on news and blog posts using Google Reader’s site customized for mobile devices. On Saturday my wife and I watched a DVR-recorded episode from Friday’s Oprah in which she extolled the virtues of Amazon’s Kindle. While the Kindle is still pretty expensive at approximately $375 per device, the functionality the Kindle offers will continue to become less expensive and more powerful in the years ahead. Some commentators speculate Oprah’s endorsement of the Kindle will help the device as well as eBook technology more generally to move more “mainstream.” Wall Street Journal contributor Jessica Vascellaro noted on Monday that Twitter is “going mainstream.” I certainly hope eText readers follow that path as well.

The company Plastic Logic is advancing the revolution in electronic text access by using plastic instead of silicon in its lightweight microchips ideal for thin, lightweight electronic eText readers. (Nod to Clark Boyd and Discovery News.) If you thought (and you should) that the MacBook Air laptop is thin, wait till you see the Plastic Logic Reader. Like the Kindle, however, this device is NOT a laptop will full-blown computer capabilities. I think products and images like this provide us with a literal glimpse into the future, which is certainly ripe with possibilities. The following 1.5 minute clip from CNN gives a tantalizing preview of the size and functionality of Plastic Logic’s eBook.

According to the New York Times September 19, 2008, article “Will This E-Reader Replace Papers?” iRex Technologies has a more expensive but even smaller and more capable device on the market today a year ahead of the projected availability date for Plastic Logic:

IRex is positioning the device as a business tool, able to store 20,000 pages on its 1-gigabyte SD card; the card comes with the unit, but higher-capacity SD cards can also be used. The device displays PDF, PowerPoint, HTML, and .txt files. And if you buy the $749 1000 S version, you can make pen-based notes directly on the device, transfer the page back to a PC (but not a Mac) and then convert the handwriting to text.

The cheapest $649 model is read only; the most expensive 1000 SW, available later this year at $849, includes handwriting input as well as Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity.

On her program Friday, Oprah extolled the possibilities of eText readers like the Kindle being available for students and teachers in classrooms around the world. I certainly agree there are tremendous comparative benefits to electronic versus analog texts, in formal as well as informal learning settings. As I’ve written and said previously, hyperlinked writing is the most powerful form of writing and is a writing form in which students and teachers inside and outside of schools should engage regularly. (Many students engage informally out of school in electronic writing now via social networking sites, of course, but relatively few schools here in Oklahoma are encouraging students to write weekly or daily with appropriate and effective hyperlinks.) I noted in response to David Warlick and Clarence Fisher’s presentations in the 2006 K-12 Online conference:

…more teachers in our schools need to be specifically teaching students how to write effectively with hyperlinks, because hyperlinked writing is the most powerful form of writing that has ever existed. The ability to connect your ideas with words, thoughts, images, sounds or videos created by others is unbelievably powerful. This is the real power of blogging, in my opinion. I always try to link ideas in my blog posts to other sources or to related posts I’ve written or others have authored, because my goal in writing goes far beyond merely transmitting my own words and ideas: I want to connect others to ideas and in doing so, empower their own personal learning journeys. Since digital technologies have advanced so quickly and come so far in our own lifetimes, we are naturally more awed by the technology than we should be or than later generations will be. David’s exhortation is excellent, challenging us to avoid the temptation to be entranced by technological bells and whistles, and instead focus on CONTENT, IDEAS, and OPENING DOORS.

I did not hear Oprah mention the power and potential of mobile technologies to bring access to digital texts to students around the world even sooner than companies like Amazon (who produces the Kindle), Plastic Logic or iRex Technologies. As I did in my TechCon 2008 breakout session on October 17th, we need to be exploring the uses of mobile technologies for learning TODAY. These devices and capabilities are here to stay, and we would be foolish to ignore the beneficial and transformative ways they can be used to support learning during class and beyond the traditional “boundaries of the bell.”

A wealth of digital curriculum sources exist now, and those options are going to continue to multiply in the years ahead. Almost 200,000 books are available for commercial purchase on the Kindle today, but the availability of openly licensed texts and other digital learning objects on the “open web” is even more potentially disruptive and valuable for educators worldwide. It is essential we provide students in our schools and our homes with access to digital screens which permit them to not only access and consume content, but also create, remix, communicate and collaborate with digital content. As Alan Kay has stated and I’m now fond of repeating, “The dominant technology defines the dominant learning tasks in a classroom.” As Chris Lehman exhorts us in his K-12 Online Conference keynote for “Leading the Change,” we must intentionally create learning cultures where technology is like oxygen: It is ubiquitous and used transparently by everyone. Putting digital tools with the functionality of today’s laptops in the hands of learners of all ages is key step, but it is not the endgame, it is only instrumental toward the goal of helping everyone acquire and regularly practice their skills of literacy in our 21st century information environment.

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  • http://paulhami.edublogs.org Paul Hamilton

    e-Text readers are indeed wonderful, with amazing potential. I’m appalled, however, that no one is building text-to-speech into their products. There is a significant proportion of the population who face reading challenges and outright barriers that can be overcome with effective text-to-speech. What we don’t need are unaffordable alternatives for those with reading challenges. More than enough extortion is already perpetrated on individuals with special needs. –Paul

  • Stacey Franks

    For $375 why not get a netbook? I dont see the advantages of Kindle. Most public libraries now have ebooks for checkout that can be read on a netbook, and with the gutenburg project you have all of the wonderful ebook libraries online for free, just download and read to your hearts content.

  • http://www.mcmel.org Mike Muir

    Forget Kindle! Pick up eReader for iPhone. I buy all my fun reading (escapist novels) from ereader.com. I used to read them on my Palm, now on my iPhone (which is infinitely slicker than the Palm version). No more lugging a book in my laptop case. It’s back lit, so I can read in bed at night without turning on the light and bothering my wife. And I can carry a whole bunch of books in a device thats in my pocket already!

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