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November 2010

eBook readers for education, redux

In 2003, I wrote an article, eBooks for education. At the time, a handful of school districts were encouraging laptop purchases for middle and high school students, federal programs for mobile education were emerging. Programs like OLPC - one laptop per child - were still on the horizon.

The Internet plays a bigger role in teaching and learning aids today than it did in 2003. Educators take better advantage of computers and the Internet as means of providing information access. These are positive signs, but we still haven't used technology to alleviate a serious risk to school aged children. In 2003, I wrote:

"Some students are carrying infantry payloads to school and back. Pity the band members and athletes, who carry second and even third packs. While opinions differ on the extent to which children are injured carrying or wielding backpacks, common sense should tell us that there must be an alternative to sending our kids to school hauling 20%-40% of their body weight."

Some argue that back and shoulder pain, and poor posture, associated with backpacks are pandemics in our society (1, 2) .

eBook readers have evolved considerably since 2003, when Palm ruled. We are still in the early development stage of eReader technology, yet choices are abundant: dedicated readers like Kindle and Nook, tablets (notably, the iPad), and eReader software for laptops and notebooks have driven the cost of eReading devices close to the $100 US range. The acceptance rate for eReaders is dramatic, and they are altering reading behavior so quickly that book publishers have no choice but to adopt to survive. 

Isn't it time to plan and implement a transition from textbook to e-textbook? Consider the following.

  • Electronic ink displays work well in classroom lighting conditions.
  • eReaders have fewer moving parts and are designed for mobility/travel and should prove more durable than laptops.
  • The stocking or replacement cost of an eReader is commensurate with the cost of a graphing calculator suitable for advanced calculus or trigonometry.
  • Battery lifetimes for many eReaders exceeds 24 hours even with wireless radio enabled. The need to recharge during school hours is not an issue.
  • Internet access is an essential feature for eReaders. eReaders can be connected to school networks or publishers to download textbooks or curriculae efficiently and conveniently.
  • eReaders offer anti-theft/recovery and unauthorized use measures protect schools, publishers and students as they do the general population of eBook consumers.


And, importantly,

  • The majority of eReader devices solve the weight issue nicely.

As was the case in 2003, stumbling blocks remain in the processes, not the technologies. In 2003, I wrote, "


  1. Educators must invest time and talent into migrating curricula from a primarily text book to etextbook orientation.  
  2. Handheld manufacturers must consider the value of offering some ruggedized for school age models, at competitive pricing.
  3. Publishers must establish reasonable pricing models for ebooks of text books."


Educators are likely to embarce eCurricula and eTextbooks. Durability already appears to be an important consideration for eReader manufacturers. But publishers rightly worry, "how can we protect (digital) copyrights?" The question is already being addressed: popular reading material is protected against digital rights infringements. These will improve over time and should be appropriate for textbooks.


A second question for publishers, "how will this affect our revenue?", is one that publishers should be studying now. A reasonable per student licensing model can take into consideration the dramatic reduction in cost to deliver ebooks versus printed books, and also take into consideration the "amortization" schools typically leverage by using the same printed text books over several years. Surely, a cost model that yields a commensurate or improved revenue model for publishers, saves school districts money, offers an enhanced learning experience, and allow students to walk erect can be derived by folks who do such things for a living?

It is perhaps a stretch to claim that the age of print is drawing to a close, but is not entirely unreasonable to consider ways that electronic ink readers can improve quality and cost of education, and in the process, mitigate a worrisome health risk to our children. It may even make good sense to consider a One Tablet Per Child program. Parents, educators, and students should encourage their Boards of Education to study this "opportunity" now.


Coping with "must have" top vulnerable applications

Bit9's annual list of top vulnerable applications for 2010 has few surprises.

If it's a browser, it's on the list. That's right: Firefox, IE, Opera, Chrome, and Safari account for nearly 1/2 of what Security News Weekly calls the Dirty Dozen.

Much of the rest of  list reads like an "our products" page at Adobe: Reader and Acrobat, Flash, and Shockwave are also among the applications with the highest number of critical vulnerabilities registered in the NIST vulnerability database from January through October 2010.

Microsoft Office, Apple QuickTime, Sun Java Dev Kit and Real Player round off the list of vulnerable applications that consumers and enterprises are likely to find on the majority of PCs and Macs in use today.

Bit9 recommends application reputation and location tracking, continuous endpoint monitoring and application whitelisting as means to mitigate the threats exploitable applications pose. These are terrific solutions for the enterprise, but don't help the average home or small business user who has to cope with similar threats.

If you are a home or small business user, consider these measures:

  1. Keep your applications patch current. My article on application software scanners explains how software like AppFresh or Secunia PSI can simplify this task.
  2. Use the best of the lot rather than the worst. All the popular browsers are on the list. In a list where Chrome tops the list with 76 critical vulnerabilities, followed by Safari (60), Firefox (51), and IE (32), Opera (6) might be worth a look.
  3. Use something else. Mac users, make Apple's Preview your default application for PDFs.  PC users, try free Foxit Reader, which offers user controlled security features. MS Office users, consider OpenOffice.Org (OOo), available for MacOS and Windows. OOo is free and it's compatibility with MS Office gets better every release. Search NIST's list of critical vulnerabilities: OOo returns far fewer reported critical vulnerabilities than MS Office.
  4. Decide if it's really indispensible. Flash and Shockwave are flashy. With the long list of vulnerabilities, they may deliver a different shock value than you expect. Only you can decide whether your web experience will be diminished if you do without them. Search the list of critical vulnerabilities as you make your decision.

All of these may not be viable or desirable options for every user. Most are free, and the learning curves are not onerous. At the very least, please follow (1): keep your applications patch current.