Digital reading and 'riting in education

Reading and writing used to be much simpler. We would get some sort of sharp stick (a pen or pencil) and scratch at paper until the marks we made could be interpreted by someone else. Well, our writing has evolved somewhat and along with it, so has our reading. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the home of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic... academia.

Lets start by looking at our writing tools. Lets start off with PDF's. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, PDF's are files that can't (of themselves) be modified. Admittedly, this is kind of a strange place to start. After all, they're designed to be immutable. The funny thing is, that unchanging nature lets us write in a special way. On my iPad, I have an app called PDF notes free. With it, I can highlight, jot down notes, or add doodles. I can't call this idea new, really. I mean, students draw in the margins of books all the time. In my case, though, I can erase everything whenever I want.

Interactive whiteboards (IWB's) like Promethean and Smartboard are also great ways to work with PDF's. Most worksheets come in PDF form these days and can easily be imported and used on an IWB. If your favorite handout doesn't have a digital copy, you can make one by scanning the sheet and saving it as a PDF. You could either use a scanner or the scan function on your copier. That PDF can then be imported and projected onto the IWB so that students can write on or highlight the important parts of the worksheet. The process of working on a handout becomes far more participatory this way.

Digital tools are great, but has anyone really tried to make a better pen? Yes, as a matter of fact. Livescribe is an extraordinary tool that looks and writes like a regular pen, but records information like no other divice out there. Whatever you write with the pen is recorded along with the audio it picks up. Later you can relive your note-taking and watch as your words and drawings apear in time with the teacher's lecture. This adds two new dimensions to traditional note taking. Audio is one of them of course, and can help you keep up with fast talkers. The other (and less obvious) dimension is time. When you see when items are added you can put them in context.

 Reading, too has changed dramatically. Consider the flood of electronic textbooks that have come out in the last year or so:
Chegg Etextbooks
Amazon's Kindle Fire books
Pearson success net
Glenco online additions
...or just Google eTextbooks to see a huge list pop up.

Students don't have haul 40 pounds of books around. Okay, so in theory they wouldn't have to if they all had iPads, Kindle Fire, Nook tablet or the Acer Iconia. Really, any tablet would do. Lets just pretend that school districts had all the political and financial capital to make that happen. With all of this digital material, kids no longer have to worry about forgetting to bring their book to class since it's always on the device. More importantly, these textbooks interact with the students as well as the outside world. Students can watch film clips. End of chapter reviews can be interactive games. And updates can happen overnight. Textbooks are notorious for getting out of date but if they are electronic, scientists can update the material as it becomes available.

Perhaps one of the most interesting changes in reading is the newspaper. News used to be delivered to the reader in one format. If you were interested, great. If not, you were out of luck. Zite has changed all that. This is an app that works with most tablet and smartphone devices. It brings the news to you based on the categories you select. Then it does something amazing. Based on what you say is good (thumbs up) or bad (thumbs down), it will seek out and find blogs and news stories you probably want to read.

How about that? Finally, there is a piece of software that helps you discover and learn exactly what you are interested in. This is the ultimate in differentiated instruction.

Reading and writing have come a long way. It's fascinating to see how they are still evolving!