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The e-book revolution is bypassing U.S. elementary schools

Textbooks aren't available for e-readers, and the children's literature that is available generally can't be searched by reading level

By Joe Mohen
February 11, 2013 07:47 AM ET

Computerworld - The American education system should be benefiting enormously from the e-book revolution, but it isn't. Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the major children's literature and textbook publishers are screwing up.

We hear all the time that the U.S. education system is in need of major reform and that other countries are leaving us in the dust. Education reform is a big subject and can be extremely controversial. But changes in the way children's books are supplied and sold can make a difference, and those changes shouldn't be controversial at all. What is needed is for book publishers and vendors to commit to e-books in a significant way.

As things stand now, hardly any American elementary school students can get electronic copies of their textbooks, and the major electronic bookstores such as Amazon and Apple don't even provide the most basic search functions to find children's books based upon reading level.

As a parent, I see the potential. This past Christmas, millions of American parents gave their children e-readers like iPads, Kindles and Nooks. Being parents, they expected to load them up with electronic copies of textbooks and children's books at the appropriate reading level. But they were disappointed. I was saddened to watch my young son and his friends using those devices for games and other apps instead of reading.

What I found was that none of my children's textbooks were available electronically. I can't fathom why this is so. The potential for profit alone should be enough of a motivator to offer textbooks in electronic form. Many parents will buy their children both hard and soft copies. And I'm not just talking about the affluent parents of private-school kids. I have spoken to many low-income parents who say they would be willing to spend money on e-readers and electronic textbooks and literature if they were available. One e-reader is capable of holding many more books than a child can carry. Have you seen the size of the backpacks that burden schoolchildren around the country these days? A lot of kids are now using book bags on wheels, like luggage. Let's give them a break and let them throw an e-reader in their packs instead.

Aside from textbooks, children's books are available for e-readers, but there is a separate problem with those. Not one of the major online bookstores enables searching by reading level. I contacted Scholastic, the leading publisher of children's books, and a spokesman informed me that the company does provide an app called Storia that can handle reading-level searching for much of its inventory. That's a step in the right direction, but it doesn't help with the main outlets that most people use when looking for e-books.

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