07/06/2010 03:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is the Classroom a Proper Place for Electronic Reading Devices?

Ten of the twelve books I am assigning in my various community college English courses this fall are available through Amazon Kindle. The exceptions are Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes and Life, Sex and Ideas by A.C. Grayling, but I expect to see them in e-book form any day now.

I have been reluctant over the years to use much electronic technology in my classes. As an English teacher, my focus has always been on books -- the old-fashioned kind. However, I often supplement the reading I assign with film (especially when we are reading Shakespeare) and other video, such as TED Talks. Now there are several gadgets available, like the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad, on which we can read an entire library of books, and many educators are currently involved in heated debates about the relative merits of reading on a screen and reading on paper. After all, what is more important, the content of the literature or the medium by which it is delivered?

Using electronic reading devices might actually be a good idea in an English course. Suppose, for example, a short story not in any of the assigned books comes up in a discussion. Imagine we have been reading "Shatterday" by Harlan Ellison, which is about a man who meets his doppelganger. Someone may mention that Edgar Allan Poe wrote a similar story called "William Wilson." If everybody has a Kindle-ready device, all we have to do is download Poe's tale right then and there in the classroom (3G is everywhere, and Wi-Fi is usually available on campus). And since this story, as well as most other classics, is in the public domain, it will be free of charge.

Of course, this idea will work only if every student has a compatible gizmo, which is not outside the realm of possibility. According to Amazon's website, books in the Kindle format may be read on each of the following devices with the appropriate app: Windows PC, Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch, Android, Blackberry, iPad, and of course the Kindle itself. Many students already have these devices, and the cost of the small ones is not that much more than the price of a high-end math or science textbook. (The cost of the latest generation of the standard Kindle reader has recently been lowered to $189.) What's more, students think these gadgets are cool.

I know that the Kindle apps work well across the spectrum of hardware choices because I have tried some of them. I was given a Kindle for Christmas last year, and I use it quite often. I also upon occasion read my Kindle books on my iPod Touch or my computer. There is almost never a hitch or a glitch, and on the rare occasion that there is one, it is quickly and easily resolved, usually by turning the device off and then on again.

We must not overlook, however, the possibility -- indeed, the probability -- that these electronic reading devices will be misused in the classroom. The major issue that fuels the argument against reading on a screen is the presence of too many distractions: email, tweets, advertisements, Facebook, etc. How many students will be able to resist the temptation of checking their latest incoming messages? Can an invitation to a party, for example, compete with Poe's "William Wilson"? This problem is now touching even the Kindle itself. The latest Kindle software has a feature that underlines passages other readers have highlighted. Anybody who has ever borrowed a book from someone who has marked it up can understand how distracting such intrusions can be. And I won't be surprised if Kindle offers other diversions with future software updates.

There are some who warn that using these e-readers could have even worse consequences. For example, in a San Francisco Chronicle article dated 20 June 2010, "As Technology Advances, Deep Reading Suffers," Nicholas Carr wrote,

Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and an expert on the neuroscience of reading, notes that learning to read deeply is a painstaking process, requiring changes deep in our brains. She worries that the shift from immersive page-based reading to distracted screen-based reading could impede the development of the specialized neural circuits that make richly interpretive reading possible. We might turn back into mere "decoders" of text.

But then, Bill Snyder reminded us a day later in another Chronicle piece that there have always been naysayers whenever new technology has reared its head:

Consider this complaint made more than 400 years ago: "One of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world," the English writer Barnaby Rich moaned in 1600.

But also consider the greatest advantage of these Kindle-ready devices: You can have an entire library at your fingertips in a thin, lightweight machine no bigger than a paperback book. For example, I downloaded The Complete Charles Dickens Collection (51 books) onto my Kindle for only three dollars. And I snagged every Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for just a buck. And many other great classics that have inspired generations of readers are just as inexpensive or absolutely free. Over a thousand books can be carried in your backpack or even your pocket! It's hard to argue against these e-readers when you consider that.

When Kindle books arrived on the scene a few years ago, Amazon set its price for most recently published works at $9.99. The usual Amazon price for a paperback is ten bucks and change, so most of the time there was not that much difference. A few months ago, however, the publishers began setting the prices of many of the Kindle books. Even so, some remain at $9.99, but others have jumped in price. One of the books I've assigned, Denialism by Michael Specter, is $14.99 on Kindle. But that's still good deal, since the book is not yet in paperback and the hardcover is $18.45. The Kindle price of another one, though, City of Thieves by David Benioff, has been set by its publisher at $12.99. Amazon sells the paperback for only $10.20, a substantial variance. The strangest price discrepancy I found concerns the legendary speculative fiction anthology edited by Harlan Ellison titled Dangerous Visions. Amazon wants a whopping $24.75 for the paperback, but the Kindle version costs a minuscule $3.56. That's right -- $3.56.

No matter how the topsy-turvy pricing eventually levels off, e-books and e-readers seem to be here to stay for better or worse. The Kindle is only one such gadget in a growing industry, and I have concentrated on it because of the ubiquity of its software. The world is changing fast. This kind of reading device is only one component of a technological juggernaut that will not be stopped by anything short of global disaster. So, the nature of education in the years to come is going to be determined by my technologically-savvy students. They are members of a generation that will be making many important decisions regarding the future cognition of human beings.