Recent announcements of a series of new experiments with Amazon’s Kindle  reader have prompted much discussion about how it can be used to help students learn and, perhaps, save money at the same time. Naturally, some academics – having been burned before – are dubious of claims of technology revolutionizing instruction. But as one who has been using Kindle well before the recent announcements, I think there is real promise. Here’s what I’ve found.
Southern Vermont College is a small, private college with both liberal arts and professional programs. Our educational and operational tasks are challenging and demanding. I lead one of our innovative programs, Build the Enterprise  (BTE), a four-year entrepreneurship and management degree program. Through the lens of BTE, I want to share our experience with Kindle.
Our learners’ stories – which inspire me – are a critical feature in our strategy. They read like this: first generation to college and/or imperfect academic experience and/or limited financial resources. They have no unallocated money. They are also like every other contemporary young learner: they possess a different cultural literacy. Now add the Kindle, an eBook reader, to this learner profile. Amazon’s Kindle 1.0 arrived in late 2007 and, admittedly, it didn’t catch my interest right away.
Now it is “Kindle this, Kindle that” in the media, with the Kindle 2.0 (introduced in February 2009) and the new Kindle DX (introduced in May 2009 and will ship sometime in Summer, 2009). It is sold exclusively by Amazon.com, although there are competing models, such as the Sony Portable Reader and the BeBook. It has wireless connectivity almost anywhere via the Sprint 3G network. Connectivity is free. It includes a Web browser. It has a keyboard. You can send and access e-mail. You can browse the Web, although not nearly with the effectiveness and full screen display of a computer. It can be both an educational and a leisure tool. Importantly, it has many of the attributes of a digital communication tool.
My thought, then, was that the Kindle could be a viable addition to the digital cultural literacies of our learners. It aligns with two pedagogies: a more traditional one and a more contemporary pedagogy.
The Traditional Pedagogy and Its Budgetary Argument
I was an early adopter of the Kindle 2.0. I brought it to my classes. I brought it to admissions open houses. Learners were quite intrigued. Prospective enrollees in the college were intrigued. Mom, Dad, and the attending siblings were quite intrigued. This techno-cultural symbol had meaning and implicit value to all of them. I began to experiment with using the Kindle 2.0 as a substitute for textbooks. For my own pedagogical practice, it is a powerful learning tool.
Our use of the Kindle has two important benefits. One of the prospective benefits of the Kindle is budgetary. Another benefit is favorable market differentiation.
The marketing benefit for the Kindle (and other multi-format eBook readers) available to an educational institution is the opportunity to demonstrate sensitivity to the costs of higher education by deploying an innovative strategy that significantly lowers textbooks expenses.
The budgetary argument is this. According to the College Board, the average costs for books and supplies for private, four-year colleges in New England, for the 2008-9 academic year was $965.00. Nationally, for that same time period, the average cost for books and supplies was $1,054.00.
One of the benefits of the Kindle is that learners can replace expensive textbooks with digital books in a format read by the Kindle. For example, for a Knowledge Organizations course I will lead in the Fall, one hardcover textbook, Organizations as Knowledge Systems (2004, Tsoukas, H. & Mylonopoulos, Eds.) currently costs $89.95 at retail, $71.97 from Amazon.com, and $63.96 in its Kindle version. That’s a 28.9% savings over the retail cost of the book. Another textbook, Theory U (2009, Scharmer, C. O.), in paper, currently costs $28.95 at retail, $26.05 from Amazon, and $15.92 in its Kindle version.
The sum of those savings would be $39.02, or a 32.9% savings over retail for both books.
For my upcoming Ecological Economics course, I expect to use Daly, H.E. and Farley, J. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications (2003), which sells at retail at $49.95 and through Amazon.com for $39.95. For this book, there is currently no Kindle version. In addition, another assigned reading in the course is “How to be an Ecological Economist” (Faber, M. 2007) available on the Web here .
In the instance of this Ecological Economics course, there will be no textbook savings available through the use of a Kindle – although that signals that perhaps I should re-think the materials I am using and assigning, and search for comparable eBook or digital journal resources.
These two circumstances form what we can construe as two likely boundaries of the current “Kindle opportunity”: one course with Kindle choices for all of the selected textbooks and another course in which there are presently no Kindle choices.
If we extrapolate these savings from these two courses over a two-semester, ten-course academic year, we could expect an average savings of $245.05. That number, of course, would vary according to the cost of the respective textbooks, their number, the number of textbooks in a Kindle format, and the Kindle version price of those textbooks. Lots of variables, but my point here is that there are some budgetary savings available from a traditional pedagogical approach to using the Kindle. As textbook publishers put more and more textbooks into formats that can be read by eBook readers of any type, the savings should be larger. I’ve modeled prospective savings in a traditional, textbook-based pedagogy, and the savings would appear to be on the order of 50 percent per year. Over four years of undergraduate school, that’s a savings of several thousand dollars.
The Budgetary and Pedagogical Impact of Another Approach
Several thousand dollars in prospective savings is not an insignificant budgetary impact, but here’s an alternative approach with an even greater budgetary (and pedagogical) impact.
The Kindle 2.0 is both an intriguing and powerful learning tool. It is small and lightweight (no more lugging around heavy parcels of books); it is convenient to use (I find that I read much more, pulling my Kindle 2.0 out of the case for my laptop when waiting in a queue, waiting for a meeting to start or the conference call to begin, at my daughter’s soccer practice, at the airport or after boarding a plane, or in those few minutes when I arrive somewhere early, and so forth); and you can transfer documents to it. For example, you can transfer to it syllabi, assignments, and other faculty-created documents in Word (.doc), .txt, unprotected MOBI, PRC, PDF, and HTML formats.
One of the attributes which currently separates the Kindle from its competitors is its free (yes, free) high speed wireless access almost anywhere in the continental United States.
Yet, the real power of the Kindle and other eBook readers is their ability to receive and read documents.
More clearly, nearly all colleges and universities have significant digital professional and scholarly journal collections for which they pay subscription fees. For example, EBSCOhost and ProQuest are major digital information databases commonly used by college and university libraries. Importantly, individual learners have full access to these online research scholarly and professional databases.
So what if we could use these features in a way that significantly lowered textbook expenses to learners? What if we could use these features in a way that not only eliminated all, or nearly all, of the textbook expenses for learners, but also raised the quality of our pedagogy?
The average timeframe for college textbooks, from proposal to printing and distribution, is five years. No viable business organization would attempt to operate on the basis of contemporary information five years out-of-date. Neither should our learners, especially in the contemporary global environment.
In addition, the pedagogical benefits of requiring faculty to stay sufficiently current in their professional fields so that they can identify, evaluate, and select current articles out of the scholarly and professional literature – and, thereby, replacing the textbooks they currently use -- would be extensive. This is exactly the approach the faculty in our Build The Enterprise program will employ in courses for this academic year and in all of our coursework thereafter.
There are, of course, instances where one or several textbooks may be indispensable or, in the instance of professional programs like nursing, there may need to be, at least in the near-term, a continued reliance on selected textbooks in traditional (as opposed to eBook) formats. Accordingly, the savings would be less.
Rarely does an innovation come easily. This is also true in a transition away from a traditional reliance on hard- or soft-copy textbooks to digital media and utilizing the Kindle and other eBook readers.
One current challenge is the limited number of first-rate textbooks that are available in eBook formats. (There are, though, more than you might think.) In addition, in order to acquire both the cost savings and the pedagogical benefits of the capabilities of the Kindle or similar eBook reader, there is the need to utilize the professional and scholarly resources of online, digital journal resources most likely already available through your institution’s library.
Here, then, is a very important Fair Use principle to which I strongly subscribe: as you migrate from print to digital media and the use of the Kindle or other eBook readers, authors should continue to be compensated, fairly and properly, for their work and their ownership privileges thoroughly protected. Access and use of research databases, online full-text journals, and additional types of electronic content are governed by license agreements which restrict use to educational pursuits, and distribution of content is prohibited
Hence, as a critical operational point when utilizing the Kindle, faculty may offer the source of a digital document in an online, digital collection like EBSCOhost or ProQuest, but, in order to conform to Fair Use practice, learners must each individually access such documents and transfer them to their Kindles themselves.
The prospects here are compelling. With a little reconsideration of how we use and frame simple educational tools like textbooks, we can not only significantly lower some of the costs of higher education, but also enhance our pedagogical practices and educational outcomes. A little new work. A little innovation and new practice. Lots of benefit. At SVC, we’ll be documenting our practices and assessing our progress with these innovations beginning this fall.
Charles Crowell is associate professor and director of the Build The Enterprise program at Southern Vermont College.