Back To School: Should An E-Reader Be On Your List?

Geek Culture

E-readers have been in the news quite a bit lately —new models are reaching the feature to price point ratio where sales have been skyrocketing, leaving even tablets in the dust in terms of adoption rates. The coming holiday gift-giving season combined with the pending release of Harry Potter e-books (finally!), increased investment in e-book versions of college textbooks and Amazon’s expected release of a tablet-based Kindle device have whipped up speculation that we are looking at the perfect storm for e-reader sales this Fall. Many parents of elementary and high school kids are wondering if now might be the time to invest in an e-reader as part of their back to school expenditures.

Does an e-reader belong in back to school supplies?Does an e-reader belong in back to school supplies?

Photo by Brad Moon

The manufacturers of e-readers have long pointed to the potential savings in moving to e-books from the dead tree versions as a reason for going digital. The demise of the $9.99 Kindle best-seller prince point and disclaimers from publishers about the expectation of lower costs for digital publishing took some wind out of the sails of this theory, but the dropping price of hardware (a base model Kindle has gone from $399 to as low as $114 for an ad-supported version in the past four years) has helped to swing the equation back toward being a good deal for many consumers. The question for parents is, should you consider buying an e-reader for your kids for school? We’ve seen the cost of school supplies climb relentlessly —does adding a $100+ e-reader to the list make any sense?

One of the first things you should do is track down copies of the reading lists for your child’s courses. Then hit (or the online bookstore of choice) to do a quick cost comparison of print vs. e-book titles. When researching another article on the subject, I pulled a random Grade 12 English class reading list off the web and crunched the numbers. I came up with a price tag of $69.07 for the cheapest paper versions of the texts on that list and $23.73 for the equivalent Kindle digital versions. Savings will vary by class, but at $45 per, it doesn’t take many courses before that new e-reader has paid for itself and is actually cutting costs. Of course, nothing is ever that straightforward. What the e-book experiment doesn’t take into account are factors such as varying numbers and types of texts in different courses, the lower cost of used books and the ability to re-sell paper books after the course is over —options not available under current e-book capabilities. Forget about e-readers when it comes to large format textbooks (especially those that make use of color or photographs such as science texts); they’re simply not there yet. Even tablet versions of e-textbooks, which take advantage of the bigger color LCD display and processing power of tablets like an iPad, are still a hit and miss prospect.

Outside of the general price advantage of e-books, there are plenty of other reasons that make an e-reader an attractive option for elementary and high school students:

  • It’s a lot easier to keep track of and carry one lightweight device instead of a stack of relatively heavy books.
  • E-readers are extremely compact, with most weighing only ounces and some being able to physically fit in a pocket.
  • E-books stay pristine, so no ripped out pages, no smears and while most e-readers allow users to highlight text and make notes, this digital graffiti doesn’t distract from the reading experience the way it can with a physical book.
  • Buying e-books is more convenient than the paper equivalents. No line-ups at a bookstore, instant availability and no shipping charges.
  • Parents of multiples have the benefit of avoiding the need to buy more than one copy of a book since e-books can be used by more than one device (registered to the same account) simultaneously.
  • The hardware expenditure should be good for several years and the e-reader is extremely useful outside of school as well (particularly on extended car trips, vacations and other times when you wished you had the room to pack a bunch of books). Not to mention for casual reading.
  • Compared to other electronics, an e-reader is forgiving to the forgetful, especially when it comes to recharging —unlike a laptop or tablet, most models will run for weeks without needing to be plugged in.

It’s not all roses, though. Here are a few things to think carefully about before taking the e-reader plunge:

Compatibility: E-readers remain in the dark ages in terms of compatibility and DRM. The biggest choice you have to make is Amazon or not. If you want the e-book selection of, be aware that the majority of its titles are in a proprietary Kindle-only format, so consider yourself locked in when it comes to reading these e-books on a dedicated e-reader. There are ways around the DRM, but they require a degree of technical know-how and a willingness to overlook legalities. Some of the most popular e-readers —including NOOKs, Kobo and Sony models— are compatible with EPUB format e-books that are available from online bookstores including Barnes & Noble.

Acceptability: Not all school boards are keen on students having electronics in the classroom. If your child only has access to digital books and bringing an e-reader to school isn’t allowed, then you may end up having to spring for paper copies after all.

Borrowing: Outside of “lend once” features offered by NOOK and Kindle, an e-book stays on devices belonging to the registered owner, so no sharing of books among friends.

Haves vs. Have Nots: Not all families can afford to equip their kids with an e-reader and not all who have the means choose to do so. In many schools, an e-reader equipped child may be relatively rare, which could lead to teasing and/or bullying situations.

Replacement Cost: Even the cheapest e-reader is still a slab of plastic and glass worth $100 or more. You can invest in a protective cover or case, but the fact remains that your child is being entrusted with a relatively fragile device that costs significantly more than a pocket calculator to replace. If it’s broken, you’ll need to replace it in order to access the e-books. Yes, most companies let you read the books you purchased online, on your smart phone via an app, or on a computer, but that doesn’t necessarily help out your kid in the classroom.

Unfortunately, there is no straightforward “yes” or “no” recommendation at this point in time. If you invest in an e-reader for school now, you’d be ahead of the curve (at least in most districts), but the future is clearly heading in this direction and schools have been experimenting with e-readers and digital books in the classroom for several years now. Age also comes into play with primary grades probably being too young -not to mention the fact that schools still supply all their books, negating any potential cost savings. If you review the pros and cons and consider your specific circumstances, you’ll be able to make an informed decision instead of making an unnecessary investment or passing on a good opportunity. If you’re looking for something to tip the scales in favor of going with an e-reader, you can always use the studies that continue to suggest people with an e-reader tend to read more than those who don’t. In that case, an e-reader may be the one electronic gadget we’d like our kids to spend more time with rather than less.

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