Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shed the Paper and Allow Books to Grow their Digital Wings

At a recent Innovation meeting when talking about what a game changer digital books are, a colleague posed the question, "What is lost when you are not holding an actual book?"

OR GAINED!!??!??!!!!! I heard myself blurt out...when it wasn't my turn to talk.

Paper trained heads that were mid stream nodding in agreement and reminiscing about their disappearing friend (the book) spun my way. **Oopsie** "We aren't losing when we allow our students to Ditch Paper and Get to the Thinking Faster." I whispered. This got me thinking, if some of the most innovative educators in town still haven't bought into going on a paper diet, what does this mean for our students?

When I polled my Personal Learning Network (PLN) to see if they would be sad when books shed their paper and grew wings most who responded said yes, though these followers/friends/friends of friends shared my sentiments:
  • MrChase - As sad as when cave walls, papyrus and parchment fell by the wayside.
  • Dianewoodard - NO! The static content of yesterday will become dynamic & allow for ongoing interaction! I love digital content!
  • Shawn Gross - The death of paper is great thing for kids, the environment and economy.
  • Thomas Whitby a friend of a friend Jeff Branzburg - We cannot tell our students that we are not comfortable using an E-reader rather than a book. If this is what the future holds, then our comfort is irrelevant to one who will live with that E-reader as reality. -Reflections on Today’s Education from an Old Guy
  • Andrew a project produced specifically for the web has the potential to be far more powerful, relevant, and contextual than anything that can be done with the same project in print. - My case for moving beyond a printed senior thesis

Yet most of the over-35 crowd is instantly in defense of the way things were/are and express it in comments like these. Ahhh, the smell of the New York Times hot off the press (I am allergic to newspaper ink), the joy of turning of the crisp pages of a magazine (I am paper cut prone), the common bond when sharing a good book (Gone forever. I never remember to get them back.), the feel of pen to paper (my hand cramps and I revise like mad), and so on and so on, and so on.... Below are what most of the comments from my Personal Learning Network looked like.

Comments from some of my online PLN members

Fred Deutsch For me there's nothing like the simplicity and beauty of a book. I enjoy the ease of dog-earring a page, placing physical bookmarks, underlining key sentences, writing notes to myself in the margin, etc. Sure, all of these can be done with pdfs, but for me the e-applications of the above are just more cumbersome and not quite as intuitive. Just my personal preference.
gimst I would miss the pleasure to handle a book, paper smelling, the sense of touch, books are special tastes of sensibilit.
I don't believe in death paper books the pleasure of reading paper book is not the same reading digital book, they will coexist.
Kelley Riley Lanahan My (over 45) eyeballs just can't read as efficiently on small screens! But there's a difference for me in reading for work and reading for pleasure.....
Laura I like to hold a book and enjoy the fonts, the spacing in the margins, looking ahead to see how many more pages there are until a break in the paragraphs, or the end of a chapter. I like to find a bookmark or fold up a piece of paper to use as one. I like to browse the library for new books, for books by authors I like, for interesting titles and dust jackets.
Kelley Riley Lanahan Ha ha ha. As much as I'm NOT a Kindle fan (other than the fact I can read late into the night and not disturb the hubby), I do like the analogies here. For me, there's something about old-style that still turns me on...
Fred Deutsch I enjoy the ability to crack open a book for the first time . . . to hear the binder creak as I open it . . . to feel the texture of the page as I run my fingers over the written word or grasp the corner of the page to turn it . . . or even sometimes the smell of book can have impact. Certainly digital will continue to compete with paper... See More, but I would be suprised if it ever become more popular than paper. Books simply provide a greater fullness of the sensual experience associated with reading and learning, imo.
iansands as long as there are beaches, there will be books. Cause it's no fun when sand gets in your laptop. :)

Kelley Riley Lanahan Nothing like thumbing through a great read though. And it's been REALLY interesting pulling some of my "classic" reads (e.g. Beowulf) off of my library shelf to compare with the versions being brought home by my HS-aged sons. There are some things, I believe, that can't be substituted....makes for a great dinner conversation if nothing else!
Suzanne Montaperto I love the instant access of the Kindle and other wireless devices....but there's nothing like the smell and feel of reading a good hardcover book!
Troy Fischer @Suz... when was the last time you felt/smelled a true leather bound ... Point is, someone said the same thing when the industry started making cardboard covers with lots of graphics. AND stay tuned, Barnes and Noble's nook designers heard your claim and the Nook covers feel like bound books, hey they may even offer a fragrance "eau de book toilette" you can spray safely all over your eBook LMAO.

My intent in bringing up this conversation is to open the eyes of the paper trained to the virtues of digital because:
  • It is much better for the environment if we all ditch the paper
  • You can do more, making the experience richer
  • Students like it better
  • It's interactive allowing for not only for easier consumption, but also production of information
  • A school or personal library of books and print materials are expensive not just to purchase, but to preserve and store. Digital content is much cheaper and richer than any print material. This speaks to the cause of demise of the print newspaper and magazine industry. Textbooks should soon follow suit. If we rely on digital materials the cost drops. Furthermore, with digital content, we don't have to pay the text book companies as richer content exists outside that outdated and ineffective learning tool This article touches on some of the reasons why - Textbook Example of What's Wrong with Education - A former schoolbook editor parses the politics of educational publishing).
  • We can't ignore the impact of digital text. From the New York Times: The advent of e-books and Google’s online book archive mean “2009 may well prove to be the most significant year in the evolution of the book since Gutenberg hammered out his original Bible.” The E-Book as Gutenberg’s Bible
  • Many kids already have devices that can serve beautifully as digital readers i.e. smart phones, laptops, netbooks, why not have them pull the devices out of their lockers and pockets and harness the power of the tools kids own. Cellphone Apps Challenge the Rise of eReaders. This comment from one of the readers captures the sentiment.
    , Chicago November 18th, 2009 10:27 am
    I had a Kindle, but as soon as I got my iphone, I sold the Kindle on ebay. I have read about 20 books on my iphone, though I also buy paper books, only because not every book is available on the iphone. The reading experience is much better on an iphone than on paper: find characters that I forgot and can look up words. The big problem with the downloaded books: once I have finished reading the book, I cannot share it with anyone else. I am not sure there is any scientific evidence to show that there is less eye strain with the Kindle or the Sony reader compared to the iphone. For those who don't like the font size on an iphone, it's easy to adjust with the different book apps.

Responses to My PLN

The two valid advantages paper has over digital today is battery life and functionality in the sand (I'm at the beach a lot). Beyond that, the resistance to me seems to be the result of my colleagues being paper-trained. When I look at what these folks prefer there is very little that you can't get digitally and digital provides for a much richer experience. Here are some of my responses.

@Fred, I think you like reading longer pieces better with paper because you are used to it. I don't see your advantages. Although I grew up a voracious reader of paper, I've spent the past few years digital and love the advantages. For example, I like to read several books at a time, but don't want to carry several books. I never know when I'll have a moment to read, and don't want to always have to have various books with me. Having them digitally in my computer alleviates that issue.
As far as the actually reading, I love doing it on my laptop or smartphone (I don't believe a special device is necessary) because...
I can easily highlight, make notes, bold, underline, right-click (rather than skip over) a word I don't know, search a concept I don't understand, listen to a word I don't know or a passage I would like to hear rather than read while I'm doing something else like getting ready for work, or copy an excerpt to paste and share with my PLN. I don't get it dirty and I never lose it.
I enjoy all those things when I read digitally, but I can actually do them better and change and adjust them to my liking. For instance, I know how many pages I have, I can change a font I don't like, I can adjust the font size to be bigger, smaller, or a different color as a prefer, I can easily not only bookmark, but also share a page of text. As far as library browsing, I like that too, and appreciate the ability to do it digitally where I can see ratings and comments from other readers and also see what my friends are reading.
@Kelley, for 40-something eyeballs, unlike with a book, you can go to system preferences and enlarge the font. Can't do that with a book.
@Fred, so, we simply need a creaking sound to give you the audio you are missing...there's an app for that! Additionally, texture isn't too difficult, you can already do the turn the page motion in most apps. I'm surprised that you would be surprised about digital overcoming paper. It already has for newspapers.
@Kelley, You are right, there's nothing like thumbing through a great read, and doing so digitally adds layers never before imaginable including making texts accessible to many who never previously would have the opportunity by enabling them to do things like listen to text, enlarge it, define and translate what they are reading. And, as far as the classics, for those with out the cash or room for storage (like us in these teenie NYC apts), they are all available for free online.

An argument missing in these virtual conversations, that often comes up when face-to-face is the edubabble where I'm told, "You can not underestimate the importance of Gardners Multiple Intelligences." You know, Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Visual-Spatial, Musical, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalist (more are added all the time). Like @Suzanne, @gimst, @Fred, et. al. as they remenisce about the feel of the book, the physical paper appeals to the bodily-kinesthetic, and tactile learner. While most educators support Gardner's theory, it is not an argument for keeping the paper, it is rather a case for ditching the paper. Digital text is uniquely suited to address the unique learning styles of students far more fully than paper. For those who still need convincing and like me prefer some tangible concrete evidence, I share with you some articles and videos that come to mind as those that can well demonstrate why we must allow books to shed their paper baggage and grow digital wings.

A Few Strong Cases For Letting Books Shed Their Paper and Grow Digital Wings

Joe's Non Netbook
Watch this video about a student who is frustrated as he encounters the extreme limitations of the outdated paper technology. This video was an impromptu exchange between Joe the student and @MrChase who teaches at Chris Lehmann's Science Leadership Academy. Think about if it is paper or digital that is more suited to meeting various learning styles and needs of students.

What Happens When You Combine A Phone and A Book?

It’s a really simple idea (essentially a cardboard box with an iPhone sized hole!) that combines print and technology beautifully.

What Happens When you Give a 3, 4, 8-Year-Old an iTouch?
I recently happened to come across all these pieces separately. Each of them addresses in a different way how a digital iTouch has become an engaging and preferred tool for student reading and writing. I don't think any of the creators knew about one another when crafting their pieces. They all make strong cases about the power of providing tech to students. The message that comes to mind strongly is the tactile experience that digital technology provides. When I hear folks reminisce about the "feel of the book" I think about how much richer the experience could be digitally. This first video does an amazing job of conveying this.

Why an iPhone could actually be good for your 3-year-old

Should a 4-year-old have an iPhone?

Marc Prensky shares how his four-year-old uses his iTouch for reading, writing, drawing and more.

What happens when you give a class of 8 year old children an iPod touch each?

In this video you see students using iTouches devices like it's second nature just like they do outside the classroom. They use the devices for reading, writing research and more using applications that are either free or much less expensive than the traditional textbook.

Devices to Take Textbooks Beyond Text

I am not a supporter of textbooks, but if educators can't break away from the outdated habit, digital is an improvement that is considered in this NY Times article. From the article: NEWSPAPERS and novels are moving briskly from paper to pixels, but textbooks have yet to find the perfect electronic home. Now there is a new approach that may adapt well to textbook pages: two-screen e-book readers with a traditional e-paper display on one screen and a liquid-crystal display on the other to render graphics like science animations in color.

Until educators see the value of conducting our reading and writing digitally, I believe our students will continue to drown in the paper. I am not promoting that we go out and purchase kindles or other eReaders for our schools either. The real opportunity is to embrace the technology our students already have access to and harness the power of the fourth screen to engage in their reading, writing, and thinking 21st century style.


  1. I am not disagreeing with you, but I teach at an elementary, inner-city school where most students do not have internet, computers, cell phones or hand-held devices. School district regulations do not allow us to require students to provide anything beyond very basic school supplies ( scissors are not considered basic so we must provide them). How do you propose schools like mine provide/fund the level of technology you suggest, so that each student has equal opportunity- particularly districts who are in the red?

  2. Naomi, this is a very mind-provoking article. I think you make some great points about the advantages of digital reading. Being able to highlight, comment and share are more easily done with digital text. I do, however, think we need to keep in mind that you need to pick the "technology" that best meets your purpose. If I want to read a book purely for enjoyment, then a paper book will meet that need. Could I enjoy a book on a digital reader? I am sure I could, but a paper book works just fine for that. Perhaps it is because I grew up with paper books. Perhaps our young students will grow up not reading as many paper books. My children, 13 and 17, are avid readers of books for enjoyment. That is what is available in our school and public libraries for free. Perhaps when more people have technologies for mobile reading and libraries have digital books for checkout, digital books could take over. It will be an interesting trend to watch.

  3. Hi Anonymous, I don't know what city you are in or if you have access to your school's budget, but I'm proposing that we actually spend less money by reallocating funds away from the texts, paper, copying, and to the digital. I'm proposing that this will ultimately cost much less the the old fashioned ways of doing things. A netbook or iTouch is about $300, last five years and provides students with access to thousands of materials and ability to authentically publish information. This translates into about $60 a year. A huge savings.

    Individual teachers can begin this work themselves by writing grants or simple proposals to donors choose. They can also reach out to businesses to donate equipment.

    When I was a teacher, literacy coach, and librarian I personally got tens of thousands of dollars of equipment. The money is there...esp for inner-city schools. Teachers need to 1) go after it. 2) Encourage students to use the tools they may already have (you might be surprised).

    Schools can start classroom at a time, but start. If you are interested, write a proposal for donors choose to get started and let me know. I'll contribute to your cause and even allow you to contribute a guest blog post about what it is you are trying to raise funds for.

    Interested innovative educators can take the charge one classroom at a time, and I'll help with a forum to share and contribute.

  4. Sharon, I agree with picking the tech that meets your purpose but I am concerned that educators are not fully aware of the advantages that certain technologies provide and I am also concerned that teachers are making choices for students that may differ from what works better for the student. Shawn Gross said it well when he shared, digital is better for the environment, the economy and the student. I know paper is what educators are used to, but is it better? You talk about free books available from public libraries, but we know this isn’t the best option as the hours and resources of libraries are scarce. These same books can now or soon be secured digitally though as libraries move in that direction. I agree with you. This will be interesting to watch.

  5. Well, I like to read in the tub...
    not so good for digital books


  6. @caro488, in all fairness water is not so good for paper books either.

    Thank you for the humorous reflection :^D

  7. Like everything else in life, the times they are a changing. I believe like the way of vinyl records books will eventually be digital. I'm not so sure if this is a "techie" thing but more of convenience and an outgrowth of the times. Kids don't learn the same way we did and we can't teach them that same old way. The important thing is that kids need to read and I don't care the way the content is delivered, as long as it's delivered.

  8. The times are definitely changing Leslie and I think it's imperative that classroom instruction change, adapt, progress to reflect the realities of today. Although I see the benefit of having a hard copy magazine, newspaper or book the reality is that like the dinosaurs they too will be extinct. It may be sooner than I think. My kids are growing up in a digital world and the bigger questions educators ought to be asking themselves is,"Why am I teaching this and why am I teaching it this way?"

  9. I fully admit that I am in the over 35 set that loves her paper-based books, but I am also a big proponent of technology. Despite my love of technology I have reservations about "giving books digital wings." I do like the idea about being able to have several books on the go at one time, in one reader, especially those weighty textbooks, but I am not yet comfortable with the idea of replacing all paper with screened technology, especially for younger students.

    I've recently become concerned about the use of screens with young children. My own son, at age 4, does not have 20/20 vision. This came as a surprise to me and the other adults in our lives. My optometrist on the other hand was not surprised at all. She informed me that they are seeing more and younger children requiring corrective measures for their eyes due to all the screen time they have in today's society. I was told that TV is probably one of the best of the worst in so far as eye health!

    The problem she says is that viewing a screen is three dimensional work for the eye, where reading off paper is not. It's easier on the eye. Also, young children often hold the screens very close to their faces, when they should be, used no closer than "lap distance" (when they are sitting up properly the screen should be on their lap, not inches from their face). Young children also do not understand that they need to give their eyes a break very frequently and will fixedly stare at what they are doing. Where adults, on the other hand, will tend to do so quite naturally.

    Think about all the screens they have access to during the day or week. The toy laptop, phone, blackberry, Leapster, Nintento DS, iPod Touch, cell phones, DVD players in cars, XBox, Wii, Playstation, Video monitors in stores and banks, TV and computers. The list is actually even longer I'm sure.

    My optometrist told me that the muscles of the eye are not fully developed until the early teens and my own son's vision should be able to be corrected by enforcing the "rules" limiting the exposure to screen time. I'm not about to hand him an e-reader any time soon.

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