The Kindle Comes to College

July 28th, 2011

Amazon Kindle Textbook ebook rentals

Those poor college students. I was visiting a campus at California State University, and the textbook prices at the student bookstore were expensive! One of the textbooks actually cost $138 (new), and while there was a cheaper used edition, it still cost over a hundred dollars!

But here’s the interesting part. The cheapest option — listed on a tag on the bookshelf — was not buying a printed book at all. College students can now rent their texts in ebook format. “They’re cheaper,” a college student behind the cash register explained to me. “But you only get them for a limited period of time.”

Amazon’s trying to help — or at least, to take advantage of the situation. Last week they launched a new service called “Kindle Texbook Rentals,” now promising savings of up to 80% over the cost of a printed text-book. And there’s an additional advantage that Amazon’s technology will make possible. “Normally, when you sell your print textbook at the end of the semester you lose all the margin notes and highlights you made as you were studying,” explained David Limp, vice president of Amazon’s Kindle department. “We’re extending our Whispersync technology so that you get to keep and access all of your notes and highlighted content in the Amazon Cloud, available anytime, anywhere – even after a rental expires!”

Amazon pro-rates the cost of your e-book based on how long you rent it — for a period that can be anywhere from 30 days to 360. “Tens of thousands of textbooks are available for the 2011 school year…” Amazon promised in their press release. And you don’t even need a Kindle in order to access the ebooks. Amazon will also deliver these ebooks to any of the free Kindle apps that are available — which includes Kindle apps for Mac and PC computers, as well as Apple products like the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, and even the Windows Phone, Blackberry, and any Android-powered devices.

“Kindle Rental has the best prices,” concluded a textbook-comparison web site — but there were a couple of catches. First, Amazon only offered 18 of the top 100 college textbooks, according to CampusBooks.com. And even among those 18 textbooks, only five were available for the cheapest rental period. “Renting a Kindle book for the advertised 30-day period yielded the highest savings, often in the double-digits…” the web site explained in their press release, “but only five of 100 titles were available for the month-long range.”

“The other 13 titles available had minimum periods of 60 days, and the savings were less.”

And what happens if you wanted to rent your e-book for more than 60 days? “[I]f students were to rent via Kindle for a whole semester (120 days), only half of the time was Kindle Rental cheaper than buying and selling a used book.” Hopefully Amazon’s selection will grow as more students continue using it, but the ultimate judges will be actual students who are shopping for their college textbooks. On Tuesday CampusRentals.com tracked down an actual college student — a senior at Trinity College in Connecticut — who is currently giving Amazon’s new service a mixed review. “It’ll be great once they get more titles,” he told the web site.

“But for now, I’m stuck with other options.”

Drexel University Library Learning Terrace

Time magazine just announced the news: “the bookless library has finally arrived.”

Last month Drexel University opened their new “Library Learning Terrace,” offering students 24-hour access to the university’s 170 million e-books, digital newspapers, magazine and journal articles, and other educational material. Everything, that is, except printed books. The Philadelphia unversity’s Dean of Libraries says the facility will let them “define a new library environment,” and they’re now considering the idea of building even more book-free learning hubs across the campus.

But they’re not the only university library without printed books. Ten years ago, Kansas State University got rid of most the books in their engineering library, according to Time‘s article. And it also notes that last year Stanford “pruned all but 10,000 printed volumes from its new engineering library,” and that San Antonio’s “ditched print in lieu of electronic material when it opened its engineering library in 2010.”

Of course, it’s only a few examples — but it suggests a big question for the future. As students get more comfortable with digital texts, will campus libraries begin stocking their shelves with e-books? Imagine a magical world where nothing’s ever overdue, and there’s always an endless number of copies for every single book. Plus, even the bookshelves could be eliminated, replaced with a few remote book servers. It’d leave more room for desks and tables for studying — some of which would inevitably be equipped with special screens for displaying e-books!

We may be witnessing the start of the book-free era without even realizing it – but at Drexel University, they celebrated with a party. It had its grand opening just last month, according to the library’s web page, with over 250 attendees marking the occasion. “As the crowd counted three, two, one…the shades of the Terrace were drawn and the attendees saw the new Terrace for the first time,” remembers a post on the library’s blog. It happened at twilight, as “their wrists aglow, the sighting of the first star kicked-off the opening remarks.” (Glow sticks had been passed out to the attendees, according to a description on Flickr, which adds that the festivities also included a DJ and snacks.) There were also prize give-aways, according to the university’s student newspaper, which reported a handful of lucky students were chosen “to have the honor of being the first to enter the facility.”

It’s stirred up a debate this week in the comments at Time magazine. “There is no guarantee that technology we use ten, twenty or fifty years from now will be capable of accessing the data we currently have stored on our CDs, DVDs, servers and hard drives,” posted one reader. But another comment argued that the only real issue was fear of change. “No one was up in arms when music began to go digital vs physical, we are seeing the same with movies, so why is this so shocking when it come to literary work?” And another comment agreed, arguing much of the resistence is “an entirely emotional and nostalgic reaction. Future generations will be just as inspired by the media they encounter; it’s the content, not the format, that counts.”

And whatever else you can say about Drexel’s new book-free library — it looks really nice!

Drexel University Library Learning Terrace picture

Clearwater Florida high school uses Kindles
Image detail from the Tampa Bay Times

There’s a new rule coming from Florida’s state board of education. Within three years, all school districts will be required to spend half their textbook money on ebooks! “Students ‘cracking the books’ to study for a class or exam could be a thing of the past someday,” joked one Florida newspaper. And when an educational publisher submits their textbook to the board for review — it will have to be an ebook!

One Florida school already spent nearly $400,000 in September to buy 2,200 Kindles — enough for each student to get their own. Each Kindle cost $177.60, but a typical English textbook will be $15 cheaper if it’s delivered in a digital format. And the Kindle may create an extra enthusiasm in the classroom. “Kids love their technology,” the school’s principal told one reporter. “We wanted to tap into that.”

One student actually predicted that he’d study more, because “You want to play with your Kindle…” And another said she liked the lighter weight of ebooks! “I don’t really have the strength to carry around five or six textbooks every day.” The textbooks are also easier to update, which could even make the information more accurate. For example, one teacher’s science textbook — now six years out of date — still lists nine planets in the solar system, though Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet in 2006.

“I think books are pretty much obsolete by the time they go to print,” joked one Florida parent. And she also thinks the students will be more comfortable with digital texts, because “My kids are lugging around 40 pounds of books!” At a local community college, the vice president noted that there’s even been pilot programs at a couple state colleges which are using nothing but ebooks in most of the classes. The hardest part is getting the text in the format that works for all devices — on Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, and other digital readers.

He also believes color screens are important. (“We are just waiting for the technology to develop so that we really can move in that direction to where our students can benefit from it.”) So while the ebooks may be required by Florida’s board of education, it’s not clear which digital reader they’ll be purchasing. And if you’re heard horror stories about school boards demanding changes in text books — just imagine what they’d do with the power to change ebooks!

I still remember when I learned how to read — but apparently, grade school is changing now. One elementary school teacher explained to a reporter that for every book in his class, every student already has a password and username! “Most of them don’t take their books home because they can go online, where they can get their reading book,” he told the newspaper as he headed into a technology conference.

“Or they can get their math book and their science book and so forth…”

The Kindle Comes to Fifth Grade

January 12th, 2011


I once told someone that when I got my Kindle, I’d re-discovered the joy of reading. It was almost like when I’d first learned how to read books for the first time as a small child. But what happens when our schools try teaching a child how to read using a Kindle? And what happens if the teachers are using Kindles for an entire classroom full of fifth graders?

“We have several quotes from them, and it always ends with ‘And now I love reading,’” the fifth grade teacher told a local news crew.

In upstate New York, just a few miles from Lake Ontario, Ms. Sayles has her students reading on eight different Kindles, and she thinks it’s working great. “They didn’t use to love reading class,” she explains to the reporters — before a cute fifth grade girl tells them the same thing. “I like how the Kindle makes reading more fun,” says Madelyn, “and it’s making me look forward to reading and school. It makes it more interesting…”

There’s eight Kindles that they’re sharing in the classroom, and because they’re all registered to one account, each ebook can appear on six different Kindles. That will ultimately save money for the school district, the teacher believes, especially since she’s sharing all the Kindles and ebooks with a special education teacher. The school district has a foundation which awarded a grant to the two teachers last June. They’re using the money to purchase the Kindles — and they’re finding it also has other advantages.

It seems to work as equalizer for the students’ books, since with printed books, they might have felt intimidated by the book’s weight and the large number of printed pages. (“Usually I don’t go near big books,” young Madelyn explained. “But you can’t really tell, and it goes by faster!”) Struggling readers might also have been embarrassed to be seen with the skinnier remedial books, but on the Kindle, no one can tell the difference. And when the students come to a word that they don’t understand, they can look-up the word in the Kindle’s built-in dictionary! “It’s great for vocabulary,” says Ms. Sayles.

Some students even use the text-to-speech feature as they follow along in the text. And if there’s a student with a vision problem, the Kindle’s font sized can be increased. “The biggest thing is that it’s gotten kids excited about reading,” says Ms. Sayles, adding another prediction. “This is the technology that’s going to be in their future. So why not start them at this age.”

The fifth grade teacher also made another good point: kids today already seem to be living in a “technology screen world.” So I had to wonder if she had mixed feelings about giving the kids yet another screen to focus on when they’re already saturated in that screen-oriented lifestyle. “I’m not sure if it will move them away from it,” Ms. Sayles told the newspaper, “but I think if it can get them to read then it’s OK….

“If we can get them excited about reading at this age, it creates a lifelong reader.”