Are Technological Upgrades in the Classroom Worth the Investment?

By Kristen Hauck

In the ongoing race to “add value” and find new uses for digital media, many have turned an eye to education. Business and innovation magazine Fast Company reports on the growing presence of e-books, audio books, and unusual new applications of technology in classrooms throughout the U.S
( Several companies in particular are mentioned:

  • Booktrack, which creates customized soundtracks for e-books and has launched an educational version, Booktrack Classroom
  • MeeGenius, a service providing e-book subscriptions for young readers
  • RRKidz, and well-known literacy program Reading Rainbow, which has recently launched the Skybrary app connecting young readers with e-books and related media
  • Learn with Homer, a “learn to read” app targeting children ages 3-8
  • Google Classroom, a versatile paperless tool allowing teachers to post and grade assignments and interact with students
A girl uses her electronic tablet to study during class. (c) GPE/ Deepa Srikantaiah.
A girl uses her electronic tablet to study during class. (c) GPE/ Deepa Srikantaiah.

As noted in the article, schools are spending in excess of $10 billion to implement these products and many more into the curriculum. There’s some question, however, as to whether these really enhance the learning experience, or are merely a lot of bells and whistles that don’t translate to higher grades or better graduation rates. Is it necessary to replace standard textbooks with e-books and require students to spend even more time staring at screens that they already do? Is the reading experience one that really needs to be transformed, or are we depriving kids of the ability to enjoy the simple pleasure of reading a book? Is this a desperate (and outrageously expensive) attempt to grab students’ attentions away from their texts, Vines, and Snapchats?

Opinions vary widely, and if schools are to publishers and distributors little more than a marketplace, it falls to educators to be discerning and make thoughtful decisions about just which technologies to implement. The Fast Company article particularly questions the value of Booktrack and its mix of music and ambient sounds to complement the events and themes of a book, or of a student’s own creative writing (a reader may hear a running river when a scene in a story is set near a river, for example). Some new innovations undoubtedly enhance learning and more importantly give students greater access to reading materials, and most are backed by statistics to support their claims of demonstrable results. Learn with Homer’s website boasts, “Proven to Boost Scores up to 74%,” based on research from Harvard and Stanford Universities. And the Booktrack website’s “For Schools” section cites data from researchers at NYU and The University of Auckland asserting that reading with a soundtrack demonstrably increases student engagement and comprehension (if “engagement” is truly something that can be given a number value). In contrast, the CEO of BrightBytes, a research firm that studies which educational tools have an actual impact on learning, is quoted as saying that most of the multi-billion dollar investment in e-books and related applications has no direct impact on outcomes in the classroom.

It would be interesting to get students’ perspectives on these tools. The article’s slightly curmudgeonly writer yearns to hear T.S. Eliot’s poetry uncorrupted by musical accompaniment; teachers and parents are quoted remarking on children and teenagers, their attention spans, and their almost symbiotic reliance on electronic devices; and statistics are mentioned to support the notion of improved learning outcomes as a result of these new technologies, but these opinions and findings strike me as disconnected from the actual day-to-day experience of learning. Does setting the mood by adding the sound of ocean waves to Moby Dick truly make the text more engaging and easier to understand, or is it simply a fun distraction, a spoonful of sugar that makes the task more palatable? Will the words on the page, standing alone, ever be enough again?


Japan’s Bookstore Industry Strikes Back at Amazon

By Kristen Hauck

Contrary to many predictions, physical books and brick-and-mortar bookstores have not vanished in the years since the rise of e-books and online retailers. And Amazon, seemingly secure in its position as the world’s undisputed media sales champion, has begun to encounter formidable resistance from the traditional book selling and book publishing worlds.

With stores in Asia, the U.S., and Australia, Japanese chain Kinokuniya may be the biggest bookstore you’ve never heard of. The company is making moves to shake up the book world in a way that may have far-reaching implications. The Guardian reports that Kinokuniya has purchased 90% of the print run of Novelist As a Vocation, the latest collection of writings from Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most popular and prolific writer, in a bid to severely limit Amazon’s stock of what is guaranteed to be a hot seller. The book, which hit shelves on September 10, isn’t exclusively available at Kinokuniya—the company has distributed a substantial number of copies to other bookstores, as well. (Read the full article here:

Without the advantage of the massive selling power of Amazon and other online retailers, this could spell bad news for the publisher, but the genius of the plot is in the guaranteed selling power of this particular title. Readers are certain to seek it out any way they can. If applied selectively and shrewdly, all players stand to gain from such a strategy (except, of course, Amazon). We may not be likely to see this exact scenario play out in the U.S.; a bookstore needs to have the resources to make such a move, and I’m not sure our equivalent, Barnes & Noble, is currently up to the task. And as the article mentions, there is no single author who dominates sales in America the way Murakami does in Japan. U.S. booksellers will likely need to take a different approach (or be on the lookout for the next big thing—a book release that will beyond a shadow of a doubt generate the kind of hype here in the States that Murakami does in Japan), but bold, creative moves like this will surely be needed if traditional bookstores are to remain competitive.