Future Tense

Kindle’s New Whispercast Appeals to Teachers by Taking the Fun Out of Tablets for Student

London children using Apptivity app on iPad.

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

As tablets replace textbooks in the hands of America’s schoolchildren, a new Kindle feature called Whispercast may make it the preferred device among schoolteachers by letting them engage in their wildest fantasy: blocking Facebook.

The free tool, which launched Wednesday, gives schools and business a way to centrally configure all the Kindles under their umbrella. A teacher using Whispercast can, within seconds, send one group of students the e-book version of Romeo and Juliet and another Much Ado About Nothing, as well as block access to Facebook, Twitter, or (if they’re feeling particularly mean) the Web all together.

As someone who went to college during that time when professors seemed unaware that students typing madly away on their laptops during lectures was often a sign of Facebook chatting, not fervent note-taking, I can see how technology can often distract from as much as it adds to a good education. A recent study of iPad use in secondary schools showed that even though students were more actively engaged in lectures—looking up information and finding answers to their own questions—having the Internet at their fingertips was often too tempting of a diversion.

But Whispercast is more than just an off-switch for distraction. By providing password controls and document sharing, it shifts the Kindle from being user-friendly to group-friendly—a move the iPad has yet to make. 

With Apple’s success in the K-12 market apparent, it’s no surprise that Amazon is also trying to make the grade. Apple CEO Tim Cook said in July that the adoption rate of the iPad by the education sector was unlike any that he had ever seen: The company sold twice as many iPads as computers to educational institutions last quarter, with sales in the K-12 market particularly strong.

Schools are hoping that tablets can help them boost test scores and drive down textbook costs.

One might assume that the wealthier schools are the ones with the cash to take part in the tablet game—but in fact, many are in neighborhoods with a more modest income bracket—Texas’ McAllen School District spent $20 million on iPads for its students this year, and it is one of the more impoverished school districts in the state. But as this infographic from Mashable shows, the savings in buying a $14.99 e-book instead of a textbook kick in only if you’re a student—and if you’re a public school student, you wouldn’t be buying your own textbooks anyway. For school districts, paying $14.99 to renew an e-book every year doesn’t prove much savings over paying $75 up-front for a textbook that can be used for several years. 

As Gizmodo points out, a Kindle is much more affordable than an iPad—with Kindle’s most inexpensive table at $69 a portion of iPad’s $399. Kindle’s library of 200,000 titles, as well as linkage to Amazon gives them the natural advantage, at least when it comes to English class. But Apple has proven an expert in marketing to educational institutions by giving them discounts and special volume pricing—the main reason  many school districts were compelled to choose the pricier iPad in the first place.  

But with Kindle now giving schools  an affordable alternative with more operability, the next move in the educational tablet battle will be Apple’s.