Children & technology

Jazz by Walter Dean MyersIt’s hard to find much time to blog while you’re running around ALA Annual, but I did want to post a couple of things I heard in sessions. Last night I went to the Odyssey Awards program that Booklist puts on to honor youth audiobooks. The winner was Live Oak Media’s version of Walter Dean Myers’ Jazz. Children’s author and audiobook producer Bruce Coville was pretty funny giving us a mini-history of kids’ audiobooks.

He told us how American educators have long been of two minds about audiobooks, because Americans expect kids to be working hard to get their literature, and listening to an audiobook seems kind of, well, cheating, especially now in the era of No Child Left Behind: “Teachers and librarians ask, ‘Is that child suffering enough? Working hard enough?’ Teachers are being told not to read aloud so much these days.” Coville, on the other hand, wants families to listen to books read aloud, and it sets his teeth on edge when kids are constantly watching DVDs in the back seat: “Every time I see a family going down the road with a damned DVD player in the car,” he said, “I know it’s wrong.”

Instead, Coville pushes hard for us to listen together: “Every great teacher knows the story is the most important thing. We’re a vast and diverse culture in the US, in danger of flying apart at the seams. Stories help us understand each other, and audiobooks are a way to get more stories in our lives.”

He also joked about his experiences driving across the country with his then-14-year-old daughter, saying “when you’re driving through Kansas, I learned that Pride and Prejudice is riveting.”

Today I attended several sessions, but the one that sticks in my mind the most is the one about Maricopa County (AZ) Library’s Dewey-less branch library. Instead of “973.2,” the label on a book’s spine says simply “History.” During the questions, one librarian sounded a little hot under the collar when he asked why the library couldn’t simply put the Dewey labels on the books and put them into a section marked “history,” but the librarians from Maricopa County replied that their users didn’t know Dewey and didn’t understand Dewey.

The feeling I got was that in the era of Google, Dewey wasn’t necessary any more. If people came to the library and were looking for a subject for an assignment, they’d find it more easily in a face-out display of newer, shinier, subject-related books. They say it works for them. The name of the session, by the way, was “Dewey or Don’t We?”

One Laptop Per Child classroomIn a recent Slate article, “The $100 Distraction Device,” Ray Fisman writes about a study conducted in Romania in which lower-income families were offered vouchers for free PCs for their children. The goals, of course, were to get these kids studying harder and more efficiently. But the results show what you might suspect – that yeah, these kids watched less TV. But they also slept less and did less homework.

Guess what they were doing instead?

Every study I’ve seen about low-income kids, games, and computers suggests the same things. It’s parental guidance that makes all the difference, and the poorer a family is, the less likely that parents encourage their kids to develop good study habits and limit their access to games and other amusing Net stuff.

That’s not always true – I worked with several groups of poor Latino families in New York City Head Starts with moms who were adamant about giving their kids good study habits. They asked lots of questions about ways to improve their children’s reading readiness and were hungry for the answers. But there were lots of other families I knew I’d never see, without a clue about helping their kids do well in school. Fisman compares the kinds of parents who choose to buy their kids PCs vs. those parents who, as in this case, were given free-computer coupons randomly:

Parents who buy computers tend to place more value on education—they’re also more likely to live in good school districts, pay for extra math classes, and generally provide a richer learning environment for their kids than parents who don’t buy computers.

Fisman remembers how involved his parents were when he got a computer growing up. He describes them as “education-obsessed” – the kind of parents we commonly see in libraries serving striving immigrants and/or upper-middle-income families. But both parents in lots of poor families are working long hours and their kids are often free to do as they like:

… my parents stepped in to make sure Space Invaders didn’t crowd out homework. Where were Romania’s parents? The voucher program was specifically designed to help poor households, and their dire financial circumstances meant that these families were probably less able to afford after-school care or otherwise see to it that the computers were used for learning and not just recreation. Indeed, the authors found that when they looked specifically at families with stay-at-home moms who may be more present and able to police computer use, the negative effects of vouchers were greatly reduced.

When I worked in New York City public libraries, almost all the kids competing for slots at the PCs were non-white and/or non-Anglo. In Austin, it’s the same. I’m willing to bet – although I’ve never been so crass as to ask – that their families are poor. The better-off kids can go home and have a fast Net connection waiting for them. Lots of the poorer kids must come to the library for one.

It’s not an easy job, but we folks in libraries serving lower-income families need to do what we can, when we can, to help parents and kids see the importance of holding off on the Mario Kart or the Nickelodeon Web site until after the homework’s done. And I’m hoping that the countries in the developing world that are providing the One Laptop Per Child computers to families with subsistence incomes are also training the parents to keep those games switched off until the homework’s done.

Henry & library booksTake a look at this new Scholastic-funded study described on CNNMoney, which I heartily endorse because (hooray) it verifies something I’ve known for a long time. It says that “75% of kids age 5-17 agree with the statement, ‘No matter what I can do online, I’ll always want to read books printed on paper…’”

We library folks know this, and we always have. We see kids checking out books every day. But I don’t think the average American who doesn’t spend his or her day around kids sees it quite as clearly. What I find especially interesting are these core findings:

One in four kids age 5-17 say they read books for fun every day and more than half of kids say they read books for fun at least two to three times a week. One of the key reasons kids say they don’t read more often is that they have trouble finding books they like — a challenge that parents underestimate. Kids who struggle to find books they like are far less likely to read for fun daily or even twice a week.

The 2008 Kids & Family Reading Report also found that parents have a strong influence over kids’ reading. They overwhelmingly view reading as the most important skill a child needs to develop, but only about half of all parents begin reading to their child before their first birthday. The percent of children who are read to every day drops from 38% among 5-8 year olds to 23% among 9-11 year olds. This is the same time that kids’ daily reading for fun starts to decline.

Again, not news for us librarians who know kids. But it’s reassuring to read it all the same; it’s a good antidote to all the stuff we keep seeing about how people are reading books less and Googling the Net more. Yet I sure wish that the researchers had also asked these kids whether they went to the library and asked the librarian for help finding great stuff to read.

Baby & a laptopThere’s a good article, “So Young, and So Gadgeted,” in the June 12 New York Times, by kids’ tech guru Warren Buckleitner. It’s meant to serve as a guide to parents about what tech gadgets currently on the market are appropriate for kids of which age. But I think it’s better to simply use it as a guide for when kids are ready for the Web. And although some parents seem really eager to get their little geniuses online ASAP, most kids can’t handle the Web in general until they’re able to read well.

Younger children can only function online when they are monitored by someone who is either an adult or a pretty good reader, or when they’re using developmentally appropriate game sites like these or these. Buckleitner reminds us that “Babies and toddlers cannot use a mouse until at least age 2 ½.”

And the vast majority of kids aren’t really ready to face the Web on their own until the age of 8 or so. It’s too confusing and too filled with ads and distracting animations to work well for kids any younger. That doesn’t stop some parents, though:

Some parents eagerly provide their children with technology. “My 4-year-old has been on the Web since he could sit up,” said Samantha Morra, a mother of two from Montclair, N.J. “My 6-year-old has an iPod and wants a cellphone, although my husband and I aren’t sure who he’d call.”

So ignore the names of the tech products and expensive Web site subscriptions Buckleitner mentions (after all, that’s his job), and read what’s left. Remember that kids’ use of the Web will explode as their literacy skills increase; the more they can read, the more they’ll be able to experience online. The more their keyboarding skills grow, the easier it will be for them, too.

Buckleitner knows what he’s talking about, but his job is to review expensive tech products that most kids will never have the chance to use. And most of the kids in your libraries are only going to be looking at the stuff that’s available free. The more we familiarize ourselves with the game sites and the Web sites suitable for younger (and lass literate) kids, the bigger help we’ll be.

Amazon\'s KindlePaul Krugman, the New York Times economics columnist, wrote about e-books the other day in a way that makes them sound as if they’re finally succeeding – or at least makes them sound that way if you, the reader, haven’t had any personal experience with actual e-books or e-book readers. Krugman’s been using a Kindle for a while now, evidently – although I wonder whether he actually had to purchase one at $359, which I consider an unreasonable price. He says that he likes it.

Krugman knows well that e-books have been claiming to be the Next Big Thing since about the year 2000, without actually reaching that goal. He jokes about it, but after reading about all the e-book promotion from BookExpo America, he feels as if things may be turning around at last:

Now, e-books have been the coming, but somehow not yet arrived, thing for a very long time. (There’s an old Brazilian joke: “Brazil is the country of the future — and always will be.” E-books have been like that.) But we may finally have reached the point at which e-books are about to become a widely used alternative to paper and ink.

He feels that the Kindle, which I’ll admit has a lot of good things going for it, may be the device that turns things around for electronic books. “It’s a good enough package that my guess is that digital readers will soon become common, perhaps even the usual way we read books,” he says.

But I still believe he’s wrong. E-books, and especially their readers, are too expensive for what you get. The e-book files can’t be resold or loaned to others. They’re harder to read than 3D books on their delicate electronic readers, and can’t be enjoyed as comfortably on the Kindle or similar devices while traveling or standing in line at the Post Office.

And they’re not in a format that appeals to young people, which I feel must happen before e-books really take off. All of these things are fixable, but the urge to make a big profit (not merely a profit, but a big one) restrains publishers from fixing them. We’ll see how long it’s going to take.

Ray BradburyRay Bradbury told an audience at BookExpo America in Los Angeles last week that e-books were failures, just as I have and many other writers on books and libraries have been saying for a while now.

But Bradbury, who has been known for a long time as an anti-tech Luddite sort (A strange attitude for a writer who is – possibly mistakenly – considered an sf author), has a different view on e-books than most of us. (I’ve never really thought of Bradbury as an sf author because I feel he harks back to visions of the past, rather than toward the future.)

Most of us e-book skeptics simply feel that e-books aren’t well-designed by their paranoid publishers for their audience. But according to Alexander Wolfe’s column on the Information Week site:

“There is no future for e-books, because they are not books,” Bradbury said. “E-books smell like burned fuel,” he added.

Wolfe goes on about some positive quotes released at BookExpo by some publishing publicists, who say that they’ve been selling more e-books than ever. But if you’ll notice, none of these publishing people have released any numbers of actual e-books sold. So far, nobody involved with the selling of e-books (who I’ve heard of, anyway) have released any sales figures. Ever. At all. Which makes me, and a lot of other e-book skeptics, highly suspicious.

I still don’t see e-books replacing paper books, except as maybe textbooks. E-books are good for things such as textbooks, which no one reads for pleasure. (Let me ask you a question: Do any of you really enjoy reading more than a page of dense, book-style, narrative text online? That’s why my posts here never exceed 500 words.)

But for reading for pleasure? E-books aren’t making a dent, yet, as far as I can see.

Clarisse Bushman, media specialistIt’s great to know when your peers think you’ve done well in your career. Here’s a story from the online Northern Virginia Daily about a high school media specialist who has been named Teacher of the Year for the Shenandoah County (VA) Public Schools. Clarisse Bushman of Strasburg High School, one of the rare media specialists who gets officially recognized for excellence by her state or her district – there are so many more classroom teachers one might select instead, and No Child Left Behind emphasizes the role of the classroom teacher while minimizing the library media specialist’s role as “support staff.”

Bushman remembers when she used to work at Stonewall Jackson High School 12 years ago, where she had only a single dial-up connection to the Net. Now her library has full high-speed Internet access, but she’s experienced enough to teach her students that getting everything they can care of Google isn’t necessarily the best way to go:

As the library media specialist at Strasburg, where she has worked for the past three years, she helps students find the information they need and collaborates with teachers on projects. Bushman pushes academic integrity, asking students to cite sources and rely heavily on databases and reference and print materials before surfing the Internet.

“I love the fact that we have choices, I just want them to understand what are the good choices,” she said. “I want them to have the best information they can have.”

But, like most of us who lived through the transition to the Net, the need to help young people love to read real books reigns supreme:

Despite the changes around her, Bushman’s main objective is one that has stayed the same — get students excited about reading. In her time at Strasburg, circulation has gone up 164 percent, she said. The students who have usually been less inclined to read have found a genre of books to their liking, whether it be graphic novels or books on hunting, tractors or wrestling.

“That’s my passion right there,” Bushman said. “If they’re not reading, what’s the point?”

Congratulations to Ms. Bushman. It’s always great to see one of us library folk become celebrated for things – such as how to be information literate – that lots of folks not in our field sometimes need a little explanation to understand.

Children & TechnologyYahoo News reported that a group of “electro-sensitive” folks in Santa Fe, NM, is protesting wi-fi in libraries and other public buildings, and wants it removed because it’s harmful to their health.

I guess that it is kind of spooky to think of all those rays passing through your body, everywhere you go, 24/7. But there’s no getting away from it, is there? I mean, TV and radio waves are passing through you all the time, too. And what about all the electricity leaking out of all those sockets? Especially when it leaks out of those big grounded sockets with three holes? It sort of makes you wonder.

I don’t think it would be too helpful in most libraries, though, to remove wireless services. When I worked at a branch with wi-fi in New York City, I saw people come down on Sunday mornings, when the library was closed, to sit on the front steps in the snow in the middle of winter to borrow the use of the library’s router. They wouldn’t be happy if the city banned wi-fi, and I wouldn’t, either.

Amazon's KindleYahoo News reported today that Amazon is dropping the price of its Kindle e-book reader device by $40, to $359. Woo-hoo, I say. Not.

Until the price of a good reliable e-book reader reaches $100 or less – and I’m not holding my breath – I doubt that e-book readers will become must-haves for more than a very few people – and they certainly won’t be of much interest to young people. Why buy e-books that you can’t move among devices, and can’t sell used, when you can buy real 3D books? Last weekend I spent half my Saturday helping out with Austin Public Library’s Monster Book Sale, and saw all kinds of wonderful books – yeah, well, all kinds of discarded library books, plenty of which were pretty wonderful – for $2 to 50 cents apiece.

I bought a classic discarded hardcover library copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s marvelous A Wizard of Earthsea, with its 1968 copyright date and its plastic-covered dust jacket all raggedy around the edges, for $1. At that price, I can carry it around easily and not care (too much) whether it gets any more beat-up that it already is, or whether it gets something spilled on it.

Try buying that book as an an e-book at that kind of price. Have you seen the wonderful article, “The Elusive E-Book,” by Stephen Sottong in the May American Libraries? I wish I could link to it, but ALA doesn’t allow access to non-members. If you can get hold of a copy, please read it. Sottong expresses exactly my feelings about the current unworkability of electronic books. He says:

The reason [the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle} will fail is the same one that doomed the Rocket e-book: Why would anyone pay $300 to $400 for a dedicated reader device when the display and interface are not as good as a paper book? As author Walt Crawford concisely put it, “Paper books work.”

Costs must come down, and flexibility must improve for e-books to succeed. We need to have e-books we can read on our cell phones and laptops without transfer hassles. And even then, I don’t feel that we’ll see e-books ever triumph – because, like Crawford, I think the 3D book works really well.

Mobile Internet Devices

Here are two stories worth looking at that I found over the weekend. The first one is a New York Times story about midsize portable PCs, “Do You Have That Portable in a Midsize?” Intel is calling them “Mobile Internet Devices” or (cleverly) M.I.D.s, because they’re about halfway in size between a laptop PC and a cell phone.

These are the kinds of PCs I predict all kids and teens (and most of us, really) will be carrying around within five to seven years. (Why so long? Read on.) They’re natural extensions of the cell phone, and they’ll bring us everything that we must sit down at a PC – whether desktop or laptop – to access now.

So far there have been a few attempts to create M.I.D.-like PCs, but the technology is only now reaching the point at which they’re becoming almost practical.

I say “almost” because if you read this piece, you’ll learn that the folks at Intel have not yet created a chip small and efficient enough to be able to run a real PC operating system – such as Microsoft Windows XP – on a small device. If you want a peek, however, into what I feel will be the future, take a look at this article. In ten years or less, a library “PC lab” will look about as up-to-date as a table covered with dial telephones.

But the role of libraries will still be critical to provide access to those who can’t afford Web access. But what will Web access look like in 2018? That’s what interests me. It may be, as NY Times writer John Markoff suggests, very possible to use all the cool Web stuff you can imagine on a cell phone-sized screen. Maybe the M.I.D. won’t be necessary at all:

I’ve been struck recently to see that when Web sites like Amazon, Facebook and Twitter are redesigned for the iPhone, the user experience is actually better than on a full Web screen. It turns out that a high-resolution, palm-size, three-and-a-half-inch screen is just fine for seeing what your friends are up to, and for reading your e-mail and even your newspaper.

The other tech piece I found that interested me comes from the BBC News site: “Power-hungry IT firms change focus.” Most of us like to think that information technology, which we in libraries have become more and more dependent on, is at least fairly sound ecologically. Well, this story tells us, think again. Information technology – in particularly the huge data centers and server farms that keep the Internet running – use incredible amounts of energy.

Hewlett-Packard, for example used to have 85 data centers around the world consuming huge quantities of electricity for its servers and for air conditioning. Soon it will have only six. The story tells us:

But if data centres gobble up huge amounts of energy, this is only a fraction of the amount the ICT sector is responsible for as a whole, warns Peter Madden, who heads Forum for the Future, a charity focused on sustainability issues.

“There is a huge trail of energy and raw materials used in the supply chain.”

UN data suggests that the manufacture of one computer uses 75 times its weight in raw materials and water.

“And of course, there is the energy used over the lifetime of a computer,” says Mr Madden.

Mr Madden is among those who say there needs to be a change in design so that hardware is easier to dismantle and re-use, in order to reduce the amount going to landfill, whether it is aluminium chips, plastic or copper cables.

So when you’re recycling paper or using recycled magazine covers in your crafts programs, that’s great. But also take a look over at your public and staff PCs and think about how much energy they’re using every day and, in many cases, all night long. And are you recycling your inkjet cartridges and laser-printer toner cartridges, too?

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