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E-Books Are Bound to Be Better for Teaching

March 22, 2001|SUSAN McLESTER | smclester@cmp.com

Change occurs slowly in the K-12 education world. In many classrooms, desks are still lined up in rows as they were a century ago; some teachers continue to spend hours talking at students; and it's taken more than 60 years for the blackboard to evolve into the white board.

In spite of this, the digital revolution is gradually creeping into the classroom. Parents and teachers are coming to accept the new ways of learning made possible by computers.

Surprisingly, it is the e-book, or digital book, that is meeting with more resistance from educators than many of the more radical technologies. From an education perspective, the e-book makes a lot of sense, especially when delivered via a hand-held e-book reader, personal digital assistant or other portable device.

It is a wonderful solution to the problem of the 5-ton, textbook-crammed backpack, and publishers can easily customize their products to supply content tailored to a state or district's curriculum.

The underlying issue, though, is broader, raising the charged question: Will traditional printed books survive the future?

More than any other issue involving today's technology, the fate of the traditional book remains one of the most controversial and emotional. The bound book is so inextricably embedded in our culture that the thought of it disappearing is disturbing.

For those of us who developed a love affair with the printed word early on, books are intertwined with the most pleasurable moments of our lives: reading under the covers with a flashlight; browsing the stacks of the library; paging through a paperback on the beach.

Yes, change can be scary. When papyrus replaced clay tablets, and the Gutenberg press replaced calligraphy, did a bit of panic set in?

Personally, I think today's powerful hand-held technologies are the greatest thing since sliced bread for delivering all kinds of educational content and saving wear and tear on the strained back muscles of our kids. Why not go to a digitized chapter of your history book to read about Abraham Lincoln, then tap into Sunburst Technology's "His Name Was Lincoln" for narrated first-person accounts of the assassinated president's funeral procession? Why not watch Robert Redford bring to life F. Scott Fitzgerald's lines from "The Great Gatsby," and then instantly access definitions of words in the text? This lively, engaging mixture of media is light years beyond the textbook and highlighter pen.

At the same time, I, like many others, find it impossible to conceive of a world where the traditional printed book does not exist. A reader once summed it up pretty well in a letter: "I love to browse bookstores for rare finds. If e-books take over, what would I do on a rainy afternoon?"

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Susan McLester is editor of Technology & Learning magazine.

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