As this pandemic has taught us, the need for the ability for education to continue to take place in times when a student who has potentially been exposed to a pathogen must isolate to prevent spreading the pathogen, the need for education tools that allow distance learning is paramount.
I would like to discuss on this page what a good eBook Reader for public schools would look like, so that maybe one can be developed for public schools in the United States in sufficient quantity to make it cost effective even for the school districts that do not have a lot of money.
The width of the Kobo Clara HD at 11cm (9cm for screen) is good but it’s height at about 15.5cm (12.25cm for screen) I think is a little short, I would make it a little taller, say 19cm (15.75cm for screen) in order to accommodate students who need a slightly large font size, so they can have a little bit more on screen at a time.
I would also use a material that feels more solid than my Clara HD uses simply to reduce damage because kids are not quite as careful.
Definitely would go with an eInk reader screen simply because of the prolonged battery life and better performance in conditions with glare. Color images would have to be tested gray-scale on eInk screens by the publisher of books for it, but that should be done anyway for the benefit of colorblind students if and when color screens are used with the same book.
The device should support audio with support for the AAC HEv2 codec, Vorbis codec, and MP3 codec. The ePub specification with respect to AAC only mentions AAC HEv1 but the problem is that many AAC encoders by default use AAC HEv2 which results in very poor audio quality when played back on a decoder that only supports AAC HEv1. By supporting AAC HEv2, AAC audios encoded using that profile will work properly avoiding the need to re-encode it.
Book publishers who include audio files should be highly encouraged to use Vorbis for the audio encoding.
Even though ePub 3 allows for video, I do not believe ePub readers for education need to incorporate video support. Audio support can be very beneficial, especially for pronunciation (for an obvious example, a text book for learning Spanish or Thai or whatever), but video is beyond the scope of an educational digital book reader.
I would actually avoid any ports at all. Ports are points of hardware failure with children who are not always careful about how they plug things in, and that then results in costly maintenance as new ports have to be soldered in. The device should charge using a Qi wireless charger. When a student in class has a device with a dead battery, teachers can keep a few wireless chargers the device snaps into available for charging it while the student uses it, still without the need for wires. Think of the plastic cases that desktop calculators snap into.
Something like in the image is shown, except the case is a battery with a Qi charger so that a student who has an eBook reader with a dead battery can borrow such a case from the teacher and get some charge in class while still using the device. Given that eInk devices do not need to be charged very often, most of the time such a charging case would not be needed if the student puts it on a Qi charger overnight once a week at home.
Qi chargers are not very big, and as more and more phones charge that way, they are becoming commonplace in the home. The charge is slower than a modern wired charger but they are faster than wired chargers of yesteryear. With an eInk screen, the charge on the device will last a lot longer and the benefit of no physical port to fail I think really makes it worth it.
Connectivity for audio should be through Bluetooth.
Internet connectivity is really only needed when downloading a new book, although some books do link to Internet resources.
For Internet connectivity, I would recommend supporting WiFi over both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands but it may be more cost effective to only support 2.4 GHz.
The digital book client must support retrieving books over OBPS and probably should support OverDrive to allow students to check out digital books from the local library, many of which use OverDrive for that purpose. It probably would not be a bad idea to specifically support WebDAV as a means of side-loading a digital book that is not available through an OBPS (or OverDrive) server.
Please note that I am not personally a fan of OverDrive due to its proprietary nature and DRM. However for many lower income students who can not afford to purchase commercial titles for their reading enjoyment and school research (and both are extremely important to childhood development), OverDrive is a solution that allows them access to some of those titles and therefore I do believe it probably should be supported.
It is my belief that every student in the public education system as a RIGHT to Internet Access. That right is not yet law but it should be.
Students who live in homes without Internet Access and/or a WiFi Router should be issued a WiFi router that connects to the Internet either through the cellular network, coax or fiber to the home where available, a city wireless network, or in very rural areas, a satellite service.
This could be subsidized by a federal tax on companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, etc. that make a large amount of revenue from the Internet. And honestly, because of the good image those companies would get from assisting low income students in public schools get Internet access, it may be possible to get the necessary funds from them without needing a tax. But it should be done either way, and it should be access that does not spy on the users as a condition of usage.
Whether they are at a school on tribal lands over 50 miles from the nearest Starbucks or in New York City, every student of a public school has the inherent right to Internet Access. We need to make that law. For those who believe it is a states rights issue, fine, then lets pass it in all states and territories. But it needs to be law and federal law is the easiest way.
Okay to me, Medicare For All is even more important but we need both and can do both.
Digital Book Reader Software
I would recommend an Open Source solution, such as the very fine R2 reader produced by EDRLab. I would make it a goal to add support for both SSML and PLS as they are, in my opinion, critical for education. Both are part of the ePub 3 specification yet rarely, if ever, implemented.
For some students, particularly print disabled students, this type of a reader is not suitable to meet their accessibility needs. For those students, it would be better to issue them a laptop they can use with the very fine Thorium Reader to properly access the digital book contents with the use of a screen reader.
Any textbooks issued by the school MUST be tested in Thorium to make sure students who need a screen reader can properly access the content.
In heavily capitalistic societies such as the United States of America, profit often takes higher importance than education of the poor. As a result, many textbook publishers are unlikely to make their publications available without some type of Digital Rights Management to reduce the occurrences of their textbook being used without them getting some kind of payment.
It would be possible for this educational ePub reader to include a form of hardware DRM that prevents the textbook from being used with unauthorized readers.
However, under the American for Disabilities Act, these textbooks must be usable in readers that meet the needs of users who need assistive technology beyond what the proposed device here is capable of providing.
It may be possible to develop a plugin for the previously mentioned Thorium reader that would allow it to read books designed to require a hardware DRM key.
Open Access Textbooks
It is my opinion that non-profit organizations dedicated to providing quality Open Access textbooks suitable for public education should be encouraged and receive federal grants.
Open Access digital textbooks avoid any DRM issues and are more fiscally responsible in the long run.
Open Access digital textbooks also make it more cost effective for a textbook to be modified to meet mandates of state or school district curriculum.
Please feel free to make comments in the section below. And please share this with your government representatives at the Federal, State, and Local level.
We can perfect this idea and make it happen, in a cost effective way, to the benefit of Americans everywhere.