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February 29, 2012

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E-readers draw enthusiasm and caution in school

VIBRANT, touch-screen e-readers like the Kindle and iPad are redefining how students learn from books. Children can now watch clips of an expert describing what triggered the extinction of dinosaurs halfway through a chapter, tip the screen in different directions to choose between text-based or image-based layout, and hear story characters speak when they touch the screen. Are traditional books becoming a thing of the past?

Mark Sylte, Western co-principal at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai's (YCIS Shanghai) Gubei campus, sees untapped potential in the use of e-readers in the classroom.

"I have been following the academic discussions on literacy and e-books for years now, purchasing an early Kindle and later an iPad to experiment myself," Sylte said.

"The potential was obvious. Lacking were the tools to put in the hands of teachers and students to serve up amazing content and create new ways of teaching and learning. We saw a tremendous step forward last month in Apple's presentation at the Guggenheim. I would argue that few realize the full implications of what was offered to the world of education that day, but I see yet another revolution in the making."

This month, Sylte presented his vision of e-books' place in the classroom at the annual meeting of all YCIS co-principals from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing and Qingdao.

"It helps students learn in new ways," he explained with a biology book on his iPad, opened to a page with a video demonstration of how salt molecules dissolve in water. "There are many ways I could explain this with words and plastic models in front of a class, but the representation in this short video captured it perfectly for my oldest daughter, not to mention her nine-year-old brother looking over our shoulders and who is now turned on to science in a new way."

An issue that underlines the untapped potential of e-readers is students' use and understanding of these technologies. Whereas hardcopy textbooks have always been clearly associated with classrooms and story books were found on children's bookshelves at home, the lines are blurred for students who have developed a personal familiarity with e-readers that may make any form of a school policy on proper technology use seem unnecessary, or worse, at odds with their own habits.

"The interactive issues related to boundless resources, appropriate and inappropriate, are something that must be carefully addressed by schools in order to ensure that the proper etiquette, protocols, sound character issues are addressed," writes Tom Ulmet, superintendent for Primary and Secondary of YCIS in China and a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS). "At YCIS, we are carefully exploring these opportunities and the limits while drafting policy that will adapt to each unknown issue as it arises."

Though the conversation surrounding these policy decisions continue and shift regularly within the academic circle, Adobe's decision to discontinue Flash development for mobile devices last November gives schools, including YCIS, more time to craft a policy that upholds the spirit of a learning community and at the same time acknowledges students' familiarity toward e-readers.


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