The Digital Divide

the kindle dx is making a splash on college campuses this fall, but while the e-reader has its fans, it also has plenty of critics.

About two weeks before the start of fall semester, incoming freshman Brian Widman received an email informing him that he would receive a free Kindle DX as part of a campus experiment.

Certain that the email was spam, he trashed it.

The Kindle DX

Amazon's wireless reading device, the Kindle DX, weighs only a few ounces, but can carry more than 1,000 titles. Photo: Amazon.com Inc.

But then he started talking with others and got the feeling the email might be legitimate. Luckily, he hadn't emptied his trash folder.

"When I found it was legit, I was pretty excited," says Widman, an engineering major from Toledo, Ohio, who is one of 40 Case Western Reserve University freshmen to receive free Kindle DX e-readers this fall.

Case Western Reserve is one of seven colleges and universities that have an agreement with Amazon.com to give the Kindle DX a test run on their campuses. The others are Arizona State, Princeton, Pace, Reed, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington.

As the Kindle DX makes its way to college campuses, it does so amid praise and criticism-a combination Amazon has been familiar with since its first version debuted in 2007. Kindle counts among its fans the queen of trendsetters, Oprah Winfrey, and among its critics authors, who denounce the text-to-speech translation, which they fear could cut into audio-book royalties.

Still, Kindles have become extremely popular.

"I can tell you that people are reading more Kindle books sooner than we ever imagined," says Amazon spokeswoman Cinthia Portugal. "Kindle titles already account for more than 35 percent of unit sales for books that are available both in print and on Kindle. We've also seen an acceleration in the size of the Kindle catalog. In the second quarter of this year, there was a 45 percent increase in new titles over the first quarter."

Portugal says it is company policy not to disclose specific unit sales, but it has been widely reported that author Dan Brown's new book, The Lost Symbol, quickly sold more copies on Kindle than in hardback.

Now, as the newest Kindle emerges, it's being promoted as more than just a new way to read textbooks and newspapers.

Some believe it will revolutionize the way students learn.

At Case Western Reserve, the information technology team worked with chemistry professor Mike Kenney during the summer months to choose students to participate in the trial.

Kenney was the first professor to approach Lev Gonick, the university's vice president for information technology, about trying to find a way to incorporate the Kindle into the classroom. Brian Gray, who heads the reference department and the engineering collections at the Kelvin Smith Library, also contacted Gonick about the potential benefits of getting Kindles to campus.

So, Gonick and his team went to work meeting with Amazon officials to launch a program and set criteria for which students might best pilot the experiment. They set the criteria that the students be in Kenney's chemistry class, be interested in computer science and participate in SAGES, the university's seminar program.

The team found students who were in all three-and 40 will participate in focus groups and document what they like and don't like about the Kindle DX, as opposed to traditional textbooks. Gonick says the pilot program will seek to find out if using an e-reader leads to more time on task, more reflective work or more organization on behalf of freshmen.

Professor Kenney has his own questions he hopes the pilot will answer.

"Only a few of the students will get the Kindle, so what I'm going to say is that you can download the Kindle app for your iPhone, then we can do some evaluation of the Kindle vs. the Kindle app on the iPhone," he says.

Other questions on his mind: "Do they find the lack of color to be a detriment to their learning? Do they find the ability to search live online, while they're reading a positive thing? How do they compare the use of the electronic device to a printed book?"

Widman, one of the students participating in the study, isn't so sure about the convenience of the Kindle.

"When I'm reading for chem, I actually prefer to use my friend's book because, with the Kindle, it takes a while to go back to the previous page, and if I know what I'm looking for, it seems to take a lot to load," he says. "I just prefer being able to flip through the book really quick."

The Digital Divide :: Amazon's Kindle Wireless Reader Device

His classmate B.J. Griffith, a biomedical engineering major from Pittsburgh, disagrees. He says the search function is one of his favorite Kindle features.

"As far as studying goes, it's really nice to have the search feature instead of flipping through the index," Griffith says. "You have the ability to search for key words, and the Kindle will take you to every location they appear in the book."

That's a feature that English professor Mary Grimm thinks could benefit readers.

"I imagine reading an old favorite like War and Peace and being able to link to historical information that would enhance the novel's story, or being able to link to an author bio when you start to wonder if something in a book is autobiographical," says Grimm, an associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve, who says she hasn't tried out the Kindle but is curious.

Students can highlight passages, take notes, and read PDFs on the new Kindle.

"The note-taking and mark-up features of the DX are awkward to use, but the ability to clip and compile notes and highlighted text can be quite useful," explains Roger Fidler, program director for Digital Publishing at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. There, he also leads the Digital Newsbook Publishing Project, which works to give journalism organizations aneasy entry point into the emerging world of e-readers.

Email and instant messaging are among the many Web-based programs that aren't available on the DX. But there is limited Web access, which could add a research dimension to the DX for content from science and technology books to literature.

Widman adds that although he prefers traditional hardcover textbooks, he has enjoyed reading the university's required novel, Three Cups of Tea, on the Kindle. That's exactly the type of information that Gonick and others at the university want to uncover in the experiment.

"It's meant to simulate the experience of reading a favorite book in a really lovely, well-lit room," Gonick says. "Will the students read more? It will be based on a small sample size, but I think there's a very good chance they will."

But what about the feel of War and Peace in your hands, at the beach or even in the bathtub?

Kenney equates the shift to what the iPod did for music. While many people download single songs, some still want to have and hold a CD. Books, he says, will still be marketed to those who love the experience of reading.

But the Kindle does have additional advantages. You can increase font size to see better, and you can choose a male or female voice to read to you. Another feature is that when you turn the display, it reorients itself.

In addition, e-books can be read on the DX or on an iPhone-and both devices, if registered to the same account, will remember where the reader left off.

All these new features sound revolutionary, but the concept of an e-reader has been around for decades.

The University of Missouri's Fidler first wrote about a portable reading device that he called a "tablet" in 1981.

"Everybody thought I was crazy at the time," Fidler recalls. "Most of the editors were predicting more color and more graphics, which was obvious at that point. They even thought newspapers would have more pages. Nobody at that point was predicting that newspapers would be going through the crisis that they're going through now."

E-reader technology ultimately moved slower than predicted, but new devices are emerging.

"Next year you'll see competing letter-size e-readers from Sony, FirstPaper, PlasticLogic, iRex Technologies and probably Apple," Fidler says.

Bookstores have gotten into the competition, too. Barnes & Noble, for example, has teamed with PlasticLogic and iRex Technologies on their devices.

Fidler says e-readers are here for the long haul, and students, he says, have made it clear that reading on a computer is not the same to them as reading on an e-reader.

That news might not sit well with Eric Frank, cofounder and chief marketing officer at Flat World Knowledge, based in Nyack, N.Y. His company is changing the world of textbook publishing by offering free access to complete textbooks on the Web. This is the first fall that colleges are using Flat World's content, and by spring 2009, the company had already signed up 300 college classes in 45 different states and six different countries.

After years in the traditional textbook publishing industry, Frank and his business partner, company CEO Jeff Shelstad, saw a broken industry and wanted to fix it.

"It was not surprising that textbook publishing and the media industry, like others, are being disrupted by the impact of the Internet," Frank says.

The Internet opened used-book markets and international markets for the resale of textbooks that cut significantly into publishers' revenues. Others began pirating books, offering them at reduced rates. Flat World Knowledge contracts directly with textbook authors and gives them a 20 percent royalty-higher than standard textbook publishers-all while putting their content up free.

That begs a key question as Amazon launches into the textbook marketplace: Will students still have to pay hundreds of dollars to download a book? And, once they do pay, will they own the book for life or will it go away when the semester ends?

Amazon has not announced how it will price textbooks or give royalties to authors. Some believe that by producing only one electronic copy, instead of printing thousands, the electronic textbooks should cost significantly less.

"Digital textbooks for e-readers will be cheaper than printed versions, but not as much as some expect," Fidler says. "Most people I've talked with about this development believe that the price for digital editions will average two-thirds to three-quarters of the price for printed textbooks. If a student uses an e-reader for textbooks, the savings should offset the cost of the e-reader within two years."

But with a price tag of $489 for the DX, what if a student leaves it on the bus or drops it in the bathtub?

"The good news is that you always own your library, and you can never lose it," Gonick says. "What happens is, even though you're reading it on this platform, its home is a permanent library on Amazon's Web services."

But you'd still have to buy another e-reader to get your library back in your hands.

If e-readers do become required on college campuses, that fee might be included in tuition or incorporated in some other way.

"My own view is that over time, electronic books on Kindles will become the dominant way that students and faculty will read, and over time, textbooks will become even more expensive in a niche market," says Gonick.

But if that does happen, what are the implications? For some users, the negatives outweigh the positives.

When the Kindle DX was introduced at Arizona State University this fall, it almost immediately faced a lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The suit states that although the Kindle has a text-to-speech feature that would help blind students, there is no way for the blind to navigate through menus to order books or find the feature.

"This could be an issue for all e-reader companies. All are trying to limit the number of physical buttons on their devices," says Fidler.

E-readers could also have an impact on how textbooks are written, directly affecting the way we use language today.

"It seems clear to me that if it catches on, it will change literature and language and how we read, but I wouldn't venture to say how," says English professor Grimm.

Would words become shorter, as they have in texting and using Twitter? Language is becoming shorter, notes Fidler, but it might not be entirely the fault of electronic media.

"Language is constantly evolving," he says. "I doubt that the forms of language used for digital editions will be different than inted editions. Already, printed editions are using more bullet points and shorter text blocks with more illustrations."

But will books ever go the way of the clay tablet etched with hieroglyphs?

"Our book budget has been affected by the economy, but we're still buying books and the wish list is just as big as it's ever been for what we'd like to have in the library," says Gray of the Kelvin Smith Library.

So, it seems, it will be a long time before college textbooks exist only behind glass in museums.