Update: Community groups in Chicago are following up on the lead of St. Elizabeths and are looking for volunteers for an e-book-related literacy program. Click here for a news release in Word format. - Jan. 4, 2002.
Ironically, however, the South Side of Chicago, hardly the most upscale part of town, may be the setting for some of the best work with e-books in K-12.
The experiment isn't happening in a bureaucracy-encumbered public school but rather at St. Elizabeth's Parochial School, which used a $7,000 federal grant to buy and experiment with several dozen Rocket eBook machines for elementary schoolers.
Perhaps it's time for the education establishment to take a look and work with Mrs. Devers and her colleague Thomas Tatum to set up a controlled experiment to verify the benefits and investigate the "Whys" here. Based on conversations with Mrs. Devers and brief essays by the children, however, the main reasons are screamingly evident. St. Elizabeth's prepared well for e-books--knowing exactly what it wanted to do with the technology. The school got bargain-priced help from a small Ohio consulting firm, Searchlight, Inc., a gutsy pioneer in K-12 use of e-books. At least as important and maybe even more so, St. Elizabeth's teachers were keen on e-books and have successfully spread this enthusiasm to the children. What's more, the teachers are interacting just as much as before with the students rather than expecting technology to replace human contact.
Toward Success at St. Elizabeth's
PC here means "politically correct" in a sense, not just "personal computer." The standard doctrine in American education is that schools should not mess with machines less powerful than standard computers. In fact, a major idea of TeleRead itself is that we should combine e-reading capabilities with those for word processing, communications, spreadsheets, email and of course Web browsing--including e-forms and e-commerce (as a form of justification). But let's get realistic about the present. Even with PC prices so low, a $100 or $200 e-book reader will be more affordable to a budget-strapped urban school than a personal computer.
Also keep in mind that the information needs of fourth graders are different from those of older children. More than high schoolers, they are recipients rather than originators of written information. This isn't to impugn the constructivist approach, where there is heavy emphasis on students creating words and images themselves. Just the same, younger children will require more nurturing, more actual human contact, and with the teachers so close at hand, much of the creativity will manifest itself in actual classroom dialogue--or, gasp, in wonderfully low-tech ways such as crayon drawings and hand-written essays.
Beyond that, children can sprawl on the floor with an e-book. Try the same with a 25-pound monitor.
And the positives, beyond the aforementioned? Just as in Chicago, the children loved the e-books, some almost cried when they were taken away, and Walusis felt compelled to console them with a pizza party. He needed the e-book readers for the Chicago school.
The St. Elizabeth's Experiment
Meanwhile the Chicago teachers have focused on the true essentials of the technology. They have shown the children exactly how to call up stories and track down words in electronic dictionaries, and constantly they have emphasized the need to respect the hardware--thus reducing the breakage rate to zero. For example, the children learn not to press down too hard on the stylus which performs mouse-style functions. Unlike the TeleRead vision--in which we'd systematically drive down hardware prices to the point where even the poorest families could afford e-book readers and parents would be more tempted to read and act as role models--the fourth graders at St. Elizabeth's cannot take the machines home. But they spend much more time with their RocketBooks than the typical student does with a PC in a school laboratory, and just as important, the readers are truly part of their educations.
Compare the situation at St. Elizabeth's to an abundantly financed school on the East Coast, where, according to Walusis, some frustrated children actually discarded laptop computers in the hall because the school failed to go to the same trouble to introduce the children to the hardware. Obviously, too, the New York-area school did not bother to make the computers a true part the curriculum. By contrast, while a paper textbook is still the main book in use among the fourth graders at St. E's, e-books are important as supplemental reading.
Thanks to the new technology, it is easier than ever for everyone in the class to share reading, at least in cases where there are no copyright problems. No more must the school buy a copy of each book for every student. And ironically, in the end, the technology makes it possible for the teachers to use old-fashioned, group-oriented teaching methods."We go from student to student and they read a paragraph each," Mrs. Devers says, "and as they read a paragraph we ask them random questions about what they just read, and if they do not recognize a word in the story, we stop then and there and go to the look-up feature in the dictionary, and we also go over the parts of speech and the definitions. The students may go from page two to four and list all nouns or pronouns. And the students can raise their hands and say, 'I don't know this word.' And then everyone will look up the word, everyone, not just the person who didn't know it. We go through the definitions and see what ones relate to the story."
To encourage the students to read on their own, the teachers have something called DEAR Time--short for "Drop Everything and Read." DEAR lasts 15 minutes a day.
In addition, the teachers look for material of potential interest to young African-Americans such as anything on Africa. It is here that TeleRead might be especially useful by increasing the variety and quality of books available, so that, for example, a child could learn to research by reading not just about Africa in general but about Ghana or even a region in that country. Mrs. Devers likes that prospect. "They would kill to get this material on e-books."
"These kids are so excited about e-books," she says, "that you could put math problems on them and they would do them. They could spend the whole day on e-books."
Whatever the reason--a hope to enter high tech or the preference of a TV generation for screens over paper--Mrs. Devers says the children "respond much better to a story in an e-book than a regular book. They want to read Hansel and Gretel again and again on their e-books."
A fourth grader named Shamere likes the fact that "you can change the stories"--something that's easier to do without having to bend a young back with a pile of pulped-wood books. Young Kendall enjoys "lots of stories to choose from." TeleRead, of course, would make it easier than ever to match books to children's interests. "I like the e-book because you can always look up words, and you can change the print from large to small," writes Ashley. Jalesa likes "the way we look up and find the definitions of the words we don't know." "You can change the background from light to dark," says Shaneka. Markus enjoys reading Little Red Riding Hood electronically.
Simply put, old-foggies need to come around to fact that many children these days will prefer to get their books and words on the screen rather than on paper. TeleRead, of course, would make it easier for schools and libraries to come up with the right hardware and the appropriate copyrighted content. What's more, books would be easier to customize for individual classes and even individual children. Updating would be simpler, too, with a well-coordinated library system online, no small consideration in the wake of September 11 and the anthrax murders. One hopes that the bioterrorism scare will soon fade into history, but whatever happened or did not, TeleRead would promote a medium with far less vulnerability to such threats than paper books passed from student to student. If nothing else, TeleRead would make it easier to link e-books with multimedia resources as well as each other. No matter what the learning style, text-oriented or visual, children could come out ahead.
Resources--and Potential Resources
Just as noted by Technology and Learning Magazine, these companies focus on the needs of college students and library users in general. Furthermore, their services often come with serious negatives from a K-12 perspective. Typically students cannot share material, an issue that TeleRead would address by actually allowing students to send material from one computer to another via the Net or even infrared, with accesses tracked to assure proper compensation of publishers. And of course, since formats for machines vary in this pre-TeleRead era, incompatibilities can be still another obstacle.
Just as important is the cost factor. Many schools may not be able to afford an adequate selection of copyrighted items, especially for high school students whose information needs are broader than those of young children.
One way around the present challenges is for K-12 educators to tap a wealth of public-domain resources online ranging from lesson plans to fairy tale collections, Project Gutenberg, the On-Line Books Page, the English Server, the Internet Public Library and the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia. Some machines come with classics and dictionaries built in, as was the case with the Rocket eBook, which has been replaced by a newer model called the REB1100.
To make the best use of public-domain items and customized materials, don't forget to investigate whether machines work with software that allows the easy importation of content in popular formats such plain-vanilla ASCII and HTML, the language of the Web. Perhaps some local librarians can take an interest here and help out with the importation. Local educators in public and private schools should at least try to overcome the normal organizational and perhaps political obstacles and work closely with local librarians. And when a truly well-stocked national library of e-books becomes a reality, local librarians can participate in the creation of appropriate links and search engines and can act as mentors. That should true in any situation, but especially when, as in St. Elizabeth's case, funds are limited.
Here are a few more resources:
Students Switch-On Electronic Books in Nation's First 'eBook' Classroom - Franklin press release with the obvious corporate perspective. The company supplied the Rocket books but has since moved on to the Microsoft reader format.
Cyber English: An Internet Project - created by Ted Nellen, a Carnegie Teaching Fellow and a pioneer in the desktop use of e-books in English classes. Nellen's teaching style is different in many ways from that of the teachers at St. Elizabeth's, but there is a common thread--a constant insistence that students show a mastery of the material. In the Nellen's case, he has relied on book reports posted on the Web.
Electronic Book Evaluation Project at the University of Rochester Libraries, a valuable site which among other things compares e-book devices and discusses usage patterns of students, albeit not at the K-12 level.
Copyright and K-12: Who Pays in the Network Era? - my paper for the U.S. Department of Education
Can E-Books Improve Libraries? - Web site from librarian Chris Rippel
national coordinator of TeleRead and a long-time advocate of electronic books and a well-stocked national digital library. This article appeared in November 2001.