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Virginia Journal of Education


Curl Up With a Good...Computer?

by Glen Bull

For 500 years books and paper have been synonymous. Two complementary advances are altering this relationship. Google is converting the world’s books to digital format while new electronic book readers offer a means of reading digitized books. Together, these two advances are shifting the teaching and learning landscape.

Many books and periodicals that Google has digitized are already available through Google Book Search on the Web at This provides access to past issues of popular magazines and serious academic journals as well as fiction and nonfiction books covering almost every genre and subject.

Future textbooks will be created specifically with digital formats in mind. Virginia’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Aneesh Chopra, established the nation’s first officially-approved open source digital textbook ( because “we live in a dynamic world of discovery.” Chopra was recently appointed as the nation’s first CTO by President Obama, where these ideas are likely to be introduced on a broader scale.

In a complementary development, electronic readers such as the Kindle are moving into the mainstream. Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of Slate, uses the Kindle for much of his recreational reading, finding that it “provides a fundamentally better experience — and will surely produce a radically better one with coming iterations.”

Jakob Nielsen, the prominent usability expert, had a similar reaction: “When I was carrying the Kindle through the house, I felt like a Star Trek character with a datapad. But when I actually sat down to read the novel, I became so engrossed in the story that I forgot I was reading from an electronic device.”

Two classes of electronic readers are becoming increasingly popular. One is based on electronic ink (E-ink) while the second has arisen from the growing use of smart phones as electronic readers.

Electronic Ink (E-ink) Readers. The Kindle is currently the most popular E-ink reader, in part because Amazon provides a wireless connection between its bookstore and the Kindle. This allows the reader to download and sample the first chapter of any of a quarter-million books, and then download the entire book, for a fee, if it is of interest.

The Kindle is, in effect, a portable bookstore. The ability to read the first chapter of any book is the equivalent of browsing through an aisle of books – without the necessity of physically traveling to a bricks-and-mortar store. A book can be downloaded in less than a minute, typically at a cost less than the physical book. Amazon also makes it easy to place an online order for the physical book, if you prefer it in that format.

Sony also makes an E-reader based on the E-ink technology. The Sony reader does not yet have all the features of the Kindle, such as a wireless connection for effortless download of books. Nevertheless, Sony is breaking new ground and has concluded an agreement to make a half-million of Google’s digitized public domain books available though its reader – creating another choice in electronic reading.

The Sony and the Kindle are the first in a series of successful electronic readers based on E-ink technology. Others inspired by their successes are sure to follow.

E-books on Smart Phones. Smart phones are increasingly being employed as electronic readers. Amazon offers a Kindle book reader for the iPhone. A book read on the Kindle is automatically synchronized to the same location on the iPhone. Shifting between the two devices - reading a page or two on the iPhone reader in a spare moment, and later reading longer passages on the Kindle - is convenient.

There are also versions of Google Books ( for the iPhone, the iPod Touch, the Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Android phones. These devices are rapidly becoming ubiquitous portable book readers. In Japan, many best-selling books are designed to be read on cell phones. As digital books increase demand, this trend may be adopted by Western culture as well.

Educational Opportunities. Electronic book readers offer benefits for those with reduced visual acuity or other visual impairments. The Kindle includes a built-in text-to-speech option that allows any book to be read out loud. Students are using this feature to increase comprehension and focus as they read. Future research on ways in which this may assist beginning readers may yield benefits in this area as well.

Jacob Weisberg concludes, “I'm optimistic that electronic reading will bring more good than harm. New modes of communication will spur new forms while breathing life into old ones.”

Today’s electronic book readers are not perfect. However, readability that is as good as a print document combined with other features, such as multi-device integration, suggests a promising future.

Bull is co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.



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