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E-Books in Urban Education
Useful Lessons from the South Side of Chicago

By David Rothman (

Update: Community groups in Chicago are following up on the lead of St. Elizabeths and are looking for volunteers for an e-book-related literacy program. Click here for a news release in Word format. - Jan. 4, 2002.

SHAMERE: Enjoys e-books because "you can change the stories."
One of the primary tenets of TeleRead in the era is that we mustn't let our library system decay like the urban school system. As many books as possible should be available in the Carnegie vein to rich and poor alike. Why replicate online the famous "savage inequalities"? 

Ironically, however, the South Side of Chicago, hardly the most upscale part of town, may be the setting for some of the best work with e-books in K-12.

The experiment isn't happening in a bureaucracy-encumbered public school but rather at St. Elizabeth's Parochial School, which used a $7,000 federal grant to buy and experiment with several dozen Rocket eBook machines for elementary schoolers.

KENDALL: Also keen on many choices in reading material.
The e-readers have been a hit among the children, mostly Afro-Americans, and Pierrette Devers, one of two fourth-grade teachers in the experiment, believes that genuine academic benefits have resulted.

Perhaps it's time for the education establishment to take a look and work with Mrs. Devers and her colleague Thomas Tatum to set up a controlled experiment to verify the benefits and investigate the "Whys" here. Based on  conversations with Mrs. Devers and brief essays by  the children, however, the main reasons are screamingly evident. St. Elizabeth's prepared well for e-books--knowing exactly what it wanted to do with the technology. The school got bargain-priced help from a small Ohio consulting firm, Searchlight, Inc., a gutsy pioneer in K-12 use of e-books. At least as important and maybe even more so, St. Elizabeth's teachers were keen on e-books and have successfully spread this enthusiasm to the children. What's more, the teachers are interacting just as much as before with the students rather than expecting technology to replace human contact.  

Toward Success at St. Elizabeth's

ASHLEY: "I like the e-book because you can always look up words, and you can change the print from large to small."

Not so coincidentally, the world's first meaningful experiment with e-book machines in K-12 may have taken place in another parochial school, this one in Ohio. The Dayton project, which unfolded in the 1999-2000 school year, almost did not happen. Eric Walusis, a corporate training expert who is president and CEO of Searchlight, lived up to the name of his firm and searched far and wide for a receptive school in Ohio and other states. Given all the regulations and ed-tech bureaucrats to deal with, he found public schools to be far less receptive than private and parochial schools. Either they did not want to cough up the money for the e-books or the "PC" establishment got in the way. 

PC here means "politically correct" in a sense, not just "personal computer." The standard doctrine in American education is that schools should not mess with machines less powerful than standard computers. In fact, a major idea of TeleRead itself is that we should combine e-reading capabilities with those for word processing, communications, spreadsheets, email and of course Web browsing--including e-forms and e-commerce (as a form of justification). But let's get realistic about the present. Even with PC prices so low, a $100 or $200 e-book reader will be more affordable to a budget-strapped urban school than a personal computer. 

JALESA: Appreciates "the way we look up and find the definitions of the words we don't know."
Besides, the machines are not intended as full replacements for PCs when they are available.

Also keep in mind that the information needs of fourth graders are different from those of older children. More than high schoolers, they are recipients rather than originators of written information. This isn't to impugn the constructivist approach, where there is heavy emphasis on students creating words and images themselves. Just the same, younger children will require more nurturing, more actual human contact, and with the teachers so close at hand, much of the creativity will manifest itself in actual classroom dialogue--or, gasp, in wonderfully low-tech ways such as crayon drawings and hand-written essays. 

Beyond that, children can sprawl on the floor with an e-book. Try the same with a 25-pound monitor.

SHANEKA: "You can change the background from light to dark."
So it was logical for Eric Walusis, who himself is home schooling his two children, to see the merits in e-books for K-12, as opposed to simply relying on the usual PCs. He also understood the other advantages, such as easier updating of material, not to mention fewer paper books to strain young backs. And with all that in mind, he wanted to draw on his expertise as a corporate training expert to introduce e-book readers to American classrooms. His work at the parochial school in Dayton was invaluable because he established that the children could indeed be enthusiastic about e-books and the breakage rate was within acceptable bounds. But while this study was meaningful at a lay level, it was not a tightly controlled academic effort, as Walusis himself would be the first to acknowledge--the reason he tried so hard to involve a graduate student or professor. What's more, he  found himself up against the very kind of problem that a TeleRead-style library could help address. Although publishers were rather open minded about having their books reproduced experimentally for the children, Walusis was doing too much of the work to digitize the material. Unfortunately the Dayton teacher could not or would not spend enough time adapting the material and creating new content. No criticism of the teacher intended here. She may well have had other excellent priorities and a simple shortage of time. More frustratingly, for reason unrelated to e-books, the teacher resigned, and her substitute showed much less interest. Those were the negatives.

And the positives, beyond the aforementioned? Just as in Chicago, the children loved the e-books, some almost cried when they were taken away, and Walusis felt compelled to console them with a pizza party. He needed the e-book readers for the Chicago school. 

The St. Elizabeth's Experiment

MARKUS: Likes to read "Little Red Riding Hood" on his Rocket eBook.
Through a nun in Dayton who knew Sister Maureen Carroll, the technology director at St. Elizabeth's, the Chicago school learned of the Dayton experiment and invited Searchlight to train the teachers in the use of the machines. St. E's wanted to create customized material in ecology and other areas for the e-book readers and also make use of them for the display of Hansel-and-Gretle-type fairy tales and children's classics like Alice in Wonderland. Walusus did not turn the teachers into computer programmers but rather dealt with the basics. Even today, more than a year after the St. E's experiment began, the teachers still must rely on Searchlight to import digitized material into the e-books. But they expect to learn this from the company later on. What's more, in the future, especially if manufacturers of e-book machines use a little more ingenuity to simplify the conversions, this should be a trivial obstacle for teachers. Microsoft even offers a free add-on to turn ordinary Woird 2001 documents into e-books.

Meanwhile the Chicago teachers have focused on the true essentials of the technology. They have shown the children exactly how to call up stories and track down words in electronic dictionaries, and constantly they have emphasized the need to respect the hardware--thus reducing the breakage rate to zero. For example, the children learn not to press down too hard on the stylus which performs mouse-style functions. Unlike the TeleRead vision--in which we'd systematically drive down hardware prices to the point where even the poorest families could afford e-book readers and parents would be more tempted to read and act as role models--the fourth graders at St. Elizabeth's cannot take the machines home. But they spend much more time with their RocketBooks than the typical student does with a PC in a school laboratory, and just as important, the readers are truly part of their educations.

Compare the situation at St. Elizabeth's to an abundantly financed school on the East Coast, where, according to Walusis, some  frustrated children actually discarded laptop computers in the hall because the school failed to go to the same trouble to introduce the children to the hardware. Obviously, too, the New York-area school did not bother to make the computers a true part the curriculum. By contrast, while a paper textbook is still the main book in use among the fourth graders at St. E's, e-books are important as  supplemental reading. 

Thanks to the new technology, it is easier than ever for everyone in the class to share reading, at least in cases where there are no copyright problems. No more must the school buy a copy of each book for every student. And ironically, in the end, the technology makes it possible for the teachers to use old-fashioned, group-oriented teaching methods. 

"We go from student to student and they read a paragraph each," Mrs. Devers says, "and as they read a paragraph we ask them random questions about what they just read, and if they do not recognize a word in the story, we stop then and there and go to the look-up feature in the dictionary, and we also go over the parts of speech and the definitions. The students may go from page two to four and list all nouns or pronouns. And the students can raise their hands and say, 'I don't know this word.' And then everyone will look up the word, everyone, not just the person who didn't know it. We go through the definitions and see what ones relate to the story." 

To encourage the students to read on their own, the teachers have something called DEAR Time--short for "Drop Everything and Read." DEAR lasts 15 minutes a day. 

In addition, the teachers look for material of potential interest to young African-Americans such as anything on Africa. It is here that TeleRead might be especially useful by increasing the variety and quality of books available, so that, for example, a child could learn to research by reading not just about Africa in general but about Ghana or even a region in that country. Mrs. Devers likes that prospect. "They would kill to get this material on e-books."

"These kids are so excited about e-books," she says, "that you could put math problems on them and they would do them. They could spend the whole day on e-books." 

Whatever the reason--a hope to enter high tech or the preference of a TV generation for screens over paper--Mrs. Devers says the children "respond much better to a story in an e-book than a regular book. They want to read Hansel and Gretel again and again on their e-books."

A fourth grader named Shamere likes the fact that "you can change the stories"--something that's easier to do without having to bend a young back with a pile of pulped-wood books. Young Kendall enjoys "lots of stories to choose from." TeleRead, of course, would make it easier than ever to match books to children's interests. "I like the e-book because you can always look up words, and you can change the print from large to small," writes Ashley. Jalesa likes "the way we look up and find the definitions of the words we don't know." "You can change the background from light to dark," says Shaneka. Markus enjoys reading Little Red Riding Hood electronically. 

Simply put, old-foggies need to come around to fact that many children these days will prefer to get their books and words on the screen rather than on paper. TeleRead, of course, would make it easier for schools and libraries to come up with the right hardware and the appropriate copyrighted content. What's more, books would be easier to customize for individual classes and even individual children. Updating would be simpler, too, with a well-coordinated library system online, no small consideration in the wake of September 11 and the anthrax murders. One hopes that the bioterrorism scare will soon fade into history, but whatever happened or did not, TeleRead would promote a medium with far less vulnerability to such threats than paper books passed from student to student. If nothing else, TeleRead would make it easier to link e-books with multimedia resources as well as each other. No matter what the learning style, text-oriented or visual, children could come out ahead.

Resources--and Potential Resources

Meanwhile K-12 teachers can keep an eye on such commercial endeavors as NetLibrary (now up for sale, with survival far from assured), ebrary, Questia and Follett Software Comapany

Just as noted by Technology and Learning Magazine, these companies focus on the needs of college students and library users in general. Furthermore, their services often come with serious negatives from a K-12 perspective. Typically students cannot share material, an issue that TeleRead would address by actually allowing students to send material from one computer to another via the Net or even infrared, with accesses tracked to assure proper compensation of publishers. And of course, since formats for machines vary in this pre-TeleRead era, incompatibilities can be still another obstacle. 

Just as important is the cost factor. Many schools may not be able to afford an adequate selection of copyrighted items, especially for high school students whose information needs are broader than those of young children. 

One way around the present challenges is for K-12 educators to tap a wealth of public-domain resources online ranging from lesson plans to fairy tale collections, Project Gutenberg, the On-Line Books Page, the English Server, the Internet Public Library and the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia. Some machines come with classics and dictionaries built in, as was the case with the Rocket eBook, which has been replaced by a newer model called the REB1100

To make the best use of public-domain items and customized materials, don't forget to investigate whether machines work with software that allows the easy importation of content in popular formats such plain-vanilla ASCII and HTML, the language of the Web. Perhaps some local librarians can take an interest here and help out with the importation. Local educators in public and private schools should at least try to overcome the normal organizational and perhaps political obstacles and work closely with local librarians. And when a truly well-stocked national library of e-books becomes a reality, local librarians can participate in the creation of appropriate links and search engines and can act as mentors. That should true in any situation, but especially when, as in St. Elizabeth's case, funds are limited.

Additional Information

Here are a few more resources:

Getting a Read on E-BooksTechnology and Learning Magazine, which discusses e-book-related experiments in different states 

eBooks Begin to Surface in K-12 Schools, but Widespread Use Hinges on Availability of content - eSchool News Online

Students Switch-On Electronic Books in Nation's First 'eBook' Classroom - Franklin press release with the obvious corporate perspective. The company supplied the Rocket books but has since moved on to the Microsoft reader format.

Digital Libraries in Education: Trends and Opportunities - D-Lib Magazine

Roles for Digital Libraries in K-12 Education (different article) - D-Lib Magazine 

Cyber English: An Internet Project - created by Ted Nellen, a Carnegie Teaching Fellow and a pioneer in the desktop use of e-books in English classes. Nellen's teaching style is different in many ways from that of the teachers at St. Elizabeth's, but there is a common thread--a constant insistence that students show a mastery of the material. In the Nellen's case, he has relied on book reports posted on the Web.

Electronic Book Evaluation Project at the University of Rochester Libraries, a valuable site which among other things compares e-book devices and discusses usage patterns of students, albeit not at the K-12 level.

Yahoo's listing on e-books and education

Copyright and K-12: Who Pays in the Network Era? - my paper for the U.S. Department of Education

Can E-Books Improve Libraries? - Web site from librarian Chris Rippel

Wired Libraries for Kids and Parents: Observations and Tips from Gutenberg Volunteers and Other Readers

The K-12 sections of the Searchlight site

eBook Web - a terrific general e-book resource on the Net, complete with listings of hardware and updates on the latest technology.

Electronic Books in Libraries--a site at the University of New York at Rochester. Includes information on e-book reading devices.


Rothman is national coordinator of TeleRead and a long-time advocate of electronic books and a well-stocked national digital library. This article appeared in November 2001.