So, I did something dumb a couple of weeks ago: when packing up some books to sell at a nearby Half-Price Books, I accidentally added, and then sold, my annotated copy of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Imagine my surprise when I took a copy off the shelf in preparation for class only to discover that it was pristine and unmarked.

Now, as it happens, the last time I was preparing to teach these books I had been traveling, and decided while on the road to buy the Kindle versions, which I read, and annotated — or at least underlined key passages in — before returning home and taking up the good old paper version. So, this time, I decided to teach the books straight from the Kindle, rather than try to prepare an unmarked, untouched paper copy.

And let me tell you, friends, teaching a book from a Kindle stinks. Big time. My entire teaching method involves going back and forth in a book, from key passage to key passage, comparing, elucidating. Here is a an account of the prophecies concerning Lyra; here is another one; here’s what the witches think about her: let’s look at these and see if they tell a coherent story. Turn to page 71; okay, keep a finger at that place and now turn to page 243; now let’s go back to 71. I scarcely ever have the book out of my hand during a class period, and I encourage my students to keep their copies open and active also.

Everything I habitually do in class is incredibly laborious with a Kindle, especially if my students have codex versions, and radically so if the Kindle edition doesn’t have page numbers. And it’s even worse if the Kindle edition doesn’t have the chapter breaks coded in: with encoded chapter breaks I can at least use the left button on the five-way controller to go back and see what chapter I’m in, but if the chapter breaks aren’t coded, then I can only click back a page at a time until I find the chapter number, and then click forward until get back where I was. And even then I won’t know how far I am into the chapter. All of this makes it very hard for me to know how to get my students looking at the same portion of the text that I’m looking at.

And then, what happens when I want to look at another passage? (1) Click the “Menu” button; (2) click “View Notes and Marks”; (3) look for the passage you have in mind, which may require clicking the “Next Page” button once or twice; (4) click the “Down” button on the controller until you get to the passage you want; (5) click the central “Select” button on the controller.

Or, if you happen to have written the location on a piece of paper or the inside of your palm, the procedure is: (1) Click the “Menu” button; (2) click “Go to…”; (3) click on the “Symbol” button to reveal numerals; (4) use the five-way controller to navigate from numeral to numeral until you get the combination you want, which can take in some cases a dozen clicks; (5) click the “Symbol” button again to dismiss that screen; (6) use the five-way controller to navigate to “Location” and click it.

That’s just not workable — not for the way I teach. All of these movements are faster and smoother on the iPad Kindle app, by the way, but still unwieldy. In my judgment, there’s only one way to make e-readers usable in the classroom: voice commands. I need to be able to click a button and say to the machine, “Go to page 243.” When that’s possible, but probably not before that’s possible, I’ll use e-readers in class. (Well, except for this summer, when I’ll be teaching in England, and will put up with the unwieldiness of e-readers in order to avoid carrying a backpack full of books all over the country. Been there, done that — many times. Not again.)

P.S. I am hoping some of my readers will be able to point to some tricks I’ve missed.


  1. Alan,
    Using the Kindle as you describe does sound painful. Being an avid iPad user, especially of the Kindle app, I wonder about lobbying Amazon to make software modifications for teachers on the iPad. It would make sense to have bookmarks which are easily placed on pages, more accessible to flip back and forth in teaching scenarios, grouping bookmarks, annotations based on lectures, etc. Or removing DRM limitations so other apps could annotate and reference purchased Amazon Kindle content.

    The physical limitations of the Kindle device right now make this cumbersome. If Amazon does create an Android device, perhaps they will pursue more creative modifications of their apps.

    And maybe they need a thoughtful and technologically adept user like you to show them how to provide a killer ebook app.

  2. I can see the pain in using it to teach but as i student it's great! I'm not one to highlight (I take notes on a separate sheet of paper) but the books are so much cheaper. They may not have the resale value that others do but it's great for reading novels and books for class.

  3. You hit the nail on the head! I tried to teach from mine, but ran into many of the same issues. One thing I wasn't prepared for was the fact that I can't scan ahead to see where I'm going. I didn't like that at all.

  4. I can easily see and sympathize with your difficulties. Without diminishing your troubles, though, allow me to offer a few observations:

    (1) The "synchronizing" problem can be solved if you direct the students to all buy the same e-book edition of the text – preferably one with proper chapter codings and other apparatus. This is no different from stocking a single edition of a required text in the campus bookstore. If you standardize on the native Kindle edition, you can easily refer to either the page numbers or the Kindle location numbers.

    (2) Part of the problem is that you have changed your teaching materials without changing your teaching methods. The way you teach is inherently designed around having a printed text – of course the Kindle doesn't work. This is like saying "the USB digital projector in my classroom doesn't project my acetate overhead-projector transparencies – what a lousy technology!". I agree that Kindles are a clunky mechanism for a lot of teaching tasks, but it's unfair to say that they're bad at doing what they're not designed to do.

    (3) Concomitant with that is the idea that you need to adapt your teaching to the technology platform you're using. Flipping back and forth between pages doesn't work on a Kindle – we know that. So you've got to do something else that takes advantage of what it *is* good at. It may take quite a bit of time and effort: you're reinventing your teaching after investing years in developing a different method; it's not going to be easy. But it's unavoidable, and the only reasonable way to use the new platform, if you're going to use it at all.

    I would suggest starting with an inventory of what the Kindle *does* do that printed books don't: (a) stores vast numbers of different books for easy access; (b) lists outlined passages and notes together in a sequential file after you mark them; (c) outputs digital text copies of your annotations and markings to an Amazon backup file and social media; (d) allows digital text search; . . . maybe others. And then of course what it *does not* do: (a) allow access to multiple works simultaneously; (b) move easily from passage to passage; (c) display margin notes directly next to text; etc.

    Craft your lessons to incorporate mechanics from the first list and avoid ones from the second. How? I don't know. We're all working this out together. (A few totally off-the-cuff ideas: mark your copy and export the notes to a blog or Web page, grouping them by theme – then display that page on a screen in the classroom while you lecture from just one or a few passages in the Kindle, referring to the notes on-screen for commentary rather than flipping through the text; use "Search" to find a relevant keyphrase and then jump from one reference to the next, rather than navigating from page to page, while lecturing on that theme; have every student mark important passages and export them to a central file, then review the passages, discuss why students marked them, whether any were marked by more than one student; export passages from each of several assigned texts, then compare and contrast; create a "running notes" assignment, in which students respond to a single question or topic repeatedly as they go through the text – review their sequential note file after they get to the end of the book to see how their ideas and perspectives changed as they went through [sample topic: for "A Scarlet Letter" – "Describe Hesther's moral character"]; . . . be creative!)

    A final note: if you had been using the Kindle originally, your notes would not have been lost even if you had lost the device! (A win for Kindle over the paper text!)

    Good luck!

  5. Kevin, my apologies: your comment got caught in the spam filter.

    Your point number 1 says that getting the students to buy the same e-book edition "is no different from stocking a single edition of a required text in the campus bookstore." But it is different, because I would have to get them to buy the device itself before they bought the e-edition. There's a big difference between asking them to spend $10 and asking them to spend $150. (And what if I wanted people to buy KIndles who already had Nooks?)

    To your point 3: "you need to adapt your teaching to the technology platform you're using." I couldn't disagree more. I think what I need to do is to decide what my students most need to learn and then choose the technologies that best promote that. Now, it's possible that one of the things that they need to learn is the use of a new technology — but that would depend on circumstances, and the simple existence of a new technology is not a reason to employ it in my classroom.

    All that said, if I were going to use the KIndle in class I would certainly do some of the things you suggest. I have written on this blog more than once that my very favorite thing about Kindle-reading is the "Your Reading" page on, where I can gather all those annotations I've made (and the annotations of others as well).

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