The Amazon Kindle Could Dramatically Improve US Education

Today, Amazon announced the widely anticipated Kindle 2 with a ship date of February 24th. I immediately ordered one. 

I bought my first Kindle in Dec 2007 and absolutely love it. As a frequent business traveller, I just bring my Kindle instead of packing half a dozen books with me. Usually I’ll buy a book or two just as I’m boarding a plane, so I can read for hours. I save a ton of money buying books on the Kindle compared to hard or paper-backed versions. I still have about 2,000 books in my personal library, and I adore books–everything about how they feel, how I can mark them up, write notes in the back pages, etc.–I even love the smell of old books. But even though I love books I always first check to see if the book is available for Kindle, because the advantages of having books on my Kindle outweigh for me the advantages of having a physical book.

Last year I travelled in Europe, and during the trip my Kindle screen got fried. It turned completely black. The device was useless. I learned then how much I don’t like traveling without a Kindle. The first thing I did after returning home was call Amazon to see if I could get a replacement.

In less than a minute I was speaking with an Amazon customer service representative. I explained the problem with the screen and he said he’d send a replacement device immediately. In fact, he overnighted it. And now, here’s the kicker. As soon as I got it and registered it, all of the books I had previously purchased for my Kindle were downloaded through Amazon’s Whispernet. I lost all my notes and comments and bookmarks from all the books I had read on my Kindle, but I soon discovered that that was my own fault. There is a setting that allows Amazon to store all of your Kindle notes, comments, and bookmarks in the cloud, so that if you ever lose your Kindle or if it breaks, all of your personalized content can be re-downloaded.

Needless to say, all my personalizations are now stored in the cloud. So when I get my Kindle 2, and my library is downloaded, all of my personalizations will come with it. I’m sure in some future version, Amazon will make it possible for me to easily share (on my blog or favorite social network) passages from books, as well as my comments about them. I also anticipate that sooner or later Amazon will be able to create some social apps that utilize the aggregate bookmarks and highlights of all the Kindle readers, so they could, for example, publish the most popular quotes from any book–a virtual Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. 

I really do look forward to future versions of Kindle that turn book reading into a very social experience; but I truly hope that Bezos never turns this device into a multi-purpose computing device that supports games and other applications. I think that would ruin the potential of this device.

I think that reading the right books is the best way to get a great education. To salvage the failing US education system we should do whatever it takes to get millions of kids reading great books once again. I think the best way to do that would be for states to purchase Kindles for every student (I’d say 7th-12th grade) in their education system, and to provide great age appropriate books for these students every year. Perhaps states should also carve out at least 30-60 minutes of reading time every day, in the classroom, for students to use their Kindles. Teachers could then lead stimulating discussions about what the students had read. (You’ll notice that in my political philosophy, I believe that state and local governments, and parents, are responsible for educating children. The US Federal Government has no constitutional authority or role in education–even thought it has been usurping such authority steadily over the past few decades. I just don’t like it at all.)

My home state is Utah. I think Utah pays about $65-70,000 for a K-12 education for each student. The cost of a Kindle with hundreds of the best books ever written in a variety of fields (with a decent percentage of them being in the public domain, and therefore free, or nearly free) would be minuscule compared to this. And yet I think it could make a difference for a lifetime for the students, who could then carry with them every great book and every textbook they had studied from, including their notes and highlights, into the workplace and beyond.

I remember when Duke University required all incoming freshman to own an iPod, so that they could listen to great books and lecture notes, etc. The problem with devices that are multi-purpose, is that the students may use them for everything but education. I bet the majority of Duke students used them for their music more than for anything else.

If the Kindle ever becomes a multi-purpose portable computing device, with downloadable games and other applications, it would in my mind destroy its potential to become the educational device of the future, which encourages and invites millions of students to read the great books–because it would be so easy for students to be distracted by everything else it offered.

I want to thank Jeff Bezos for making the Kindle a brilliant, single-purpose device to enable and encourage more reading, and I hope that he will be able to continue to produce future versions that still center on reading, even if enabling more social sharing around the reading experience. But please don’t be tempted to make this a device for music, games, or fun. We already have plenty of those.

11 thoughts on “The Amazon Kindle Could Dramatically Improve US Education

  1. Wow, I’ve never seriously considered buying a Kindle, but I think you’ve talked me into it. (Considering it, that is–$359.00 is a serious decision at this point).

    I’m considering getting an iPod Touch (already have a cell phone, don’t want to pay the extra for an iPhone) or a Kindle. I like the Touch for its internet/calendar/podcast potential but the Kindle seems like a natural for a college student, as it eliminates distractions (no possibility of checking email or playing with some cool app) and seems to make reading so much more convenient and mobile.

    If you had to choose your favorite, and could only have one, which would you keep: Kindle, Blackberry, iPhone, something else?

    This is really fun stuff. I’m excited to learn more about it all . . . .

  2. “I believe that state and local governments, and parents, are responsible for educating children.”

    Just because it’s a good cause, that doesn’t mean you should get government involved.

    Having the state raise our children is a terrible trap we’ve fallen into. We need to reverse this process rather than embolden it. The sole responsibility to raise our children lies upon the parents alone.

    Please re-think your principles on the proper role of government 🙂

  3. “I think that reading the right books is the best way to get a great education. ”

    Amen! I couldn’t agree more. My children have experienced private schools, public schools, special needs programs, gifted programs, and home school. Right now they’re split between public school and home school. My home school kids read thousands of pages a week. This is not part of their home school work, but because they have extra time each day to read and they love to read. My public school kids have hardly any time to read in comparison. They read very little compared to what they used to read when they were still doing home school. I’m not anti-public school – I’ve just been frustrated with this particular dynamic.

  4. The key to integrating the Kindle into education will be to have mass adoption by textbook companies to sell their books through Amazon. I don’t see them doing this because publishing the books and selling them for outrageous prices is how they stay in business. The textbook market is a serious detriment financially to students particularly at the university level. I would like to see teachers either develop their own text or have them embrace much cheaper but authoritative works all distributed digitally with an option for print.

    I also don’t see great adoption of the Kindle until the price comes down at least by half. Most university students are already required to have laptop. The only way you could get them to buy a Kindle on a mass scale would be to require it so that they could use their scholarship/financial aid to help pay for it.

  5. Paul,
    At a time when states and school districts are short of funds, there is no way
    they could afford to purchase Kindles for their students. Nor can most blue collar
    families afford to purchase one for their children. There is also a backlash
    starting among authors and publishers about Amazon and Kindle, the latest
    being over the Text To Speech feature which effects the author’s audio book

    Perhaps Kindle will continue to do well but we’ll see given the state of the
    economy. $359 for a Kindle may not be looking so good now to a lot of people.

    And in the interests of full disclosure, I work in a book store.

  6. My brother-in-law is one of the principle developers on the Kindle project. I forwarded your review to him.

  7. Kindle sounds great ! If they added wireless e-mail it would be the perfect traveling tool.

    PS How do I contact LDS Audio. I got an incomplete download and cannot find any contact material on the website.

  8. Very interesting to read your comments 2 years down the line!! The Kindle seems to have answered a lot of the issues posed. It has not (yet) become a computer with games etc, but its price has more than halved. Surely now, this must become a core educational tool!

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