Cell phone book clubs: What they’re like and what they can do for K-12 kids, their parents and others

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How to set up a cell phone book club? LibraryCity covered that earlier. The idea is more appealing than ever now, given the increasing ownership of cell phones among the poor, bigger screens and other improvements, and of course President Obama’s new push for e-books for low-income children. Cell phone book clubs can take many forms, but here’s what they might be like for K-12.

LighaheadTwelveYearsSlave1. Participation of not only K-12 students but also their parents, at least in the lower grades and ideally the upper ones as well. The Obama plan apparently isn’t as big on family literacy as it could be. We need books for low-income mothers and fathers, also, not just their children. Role models, anyone? What’s more, the clubs would be a way to teach nutrition, impart other kinds of health and employment information, and encourage good child-rearing practices.

2. Access to all kinds of helpful and enlightening content. Twelve Years a Slave is an example of the public domain riches online, even though the clubs could also use titles from services such as OverDrive, which, by the way, can make arrangements for simultaneous checkouts of some titles. Also keep in mind the 10,000 e-books that publishers have donated for low-income kids in the U.S.

3. Billing of the cell phone book clubs as social clubs, too–ways for neighbors to get to know each other. I see refreshments, music, maybe even dancing in some cases, such as teen-oriented clubs. Aixa Dengate, a teacher living here in Alexandria, Virginia, urged me to play up the social aspect. Befriend other people along with books. And, she urges, serve lots and lots of tasty snacks! Yes, they could be Michelle Obama-acceptable.

4. Showing club members how to use and pick e-book apps and download free books that they can keep—from sources like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. Will the main e-reading app used in the Obama initiative be capable of “read-aloud” for people with disabilities? Will it also offer all-bold text options–which the recent E Ink Kindles do not, despite my pleas and others’? I’d hope so. Those are just two examples of the accessibility issues here. What’s more, I want 12-year-olds appreciating the glories of Moon+ Reader Pro and other full-featured e-reading apps. The more they can customize the display of e-books, the more likely they are to read them. This is a knowledge issue, not just a tech one. Here’s a natural role here for digital-savvy librarians, when they’re around (not always the case, alas).

5. Teaching cell-phone-related computer literacy. The Android operating system, so popular for the cheapest phones, can be tricky. If nothing else, how about security precautions against hackers stealing information? What’s more, parents ought to know how to find out what’s on their younger kids’ cell phones. Trust but “verify” under a certain age. In some cases parents may even want to experiment with software to control their children’s phone use. Social media apps, as a threat to kids’ grades, are the new TV.

6. In-library activities that also would be made available for on-demand viewing or listening. Even $20 smartphones can display YouTubes if the bandwidth is sufficient (not always the case in the kids’ homes). The activities could feature speakers associated with both books and topics that the kids were interested in, such as music or sports. Yes, “kids” include boys. Libraries all too often forget them in their selection of titles for book clubs.

Needless to say, cell phone book clubs would be one way to help keep brick-and-mortar libraries on the minds of people using virtual ones. Libraries could even encourage people of all ages to start cell phone book clubs of their own—and arrange with OverDrive and the other library e-book suppliers for simultaneous accesses. Alas, due to digital rights management, the best apps like Moon do not work with OverDrive books. But OverDrive’s own app has improved, and its books are also readable through other software, including the TTS-capable Mantano Reader.

7. Use of club blogs to publish student book reviews and essays and short stories, along with video interviews with writers and others—not just announce club events. Blogs could also carry YouTube tutorials (for watching on library computers if sufficient bandwidth isn’t available at home), not just text. Meetings could also be broadcast live through the Net, via Google+ Hangouts or equivalent services.

8. Mentoring of the kids by tech-hip volunteers and others they respect. This might lead eventually to after-school or summer jobs. See Our Kids, Harvard political scientists Robert Putnam’s new book, where he talks up the importance of mentoring for low-income kids, who find it hard to make the same connections that students from affluent families can.

9. Promotion of the clubs and libraries through means such as posters for both the clubs and individual books.

10. “Learn and earn” program to help people buy cheap cell phones, which, if need be, they could use at the start just with WiFi. Perhaps phone companies could offer breaks, in terms of the costs of both the hardware and the wireless connections.

11. Full donations of phones and other e-book-capable devices, by individuals and companies.

12. No need for all reading to happen on phones—far from it! Tablets and Kindle-style e-readers and paper books are fine! But phones are significant, in that the owners carry them everywhere–hence, the name “cell phone book club.”

13. Encouraging women and minorities, especially, to study coding–and create their own apps ultimately for cell phones and other devices.

Njabulo Tazibona, a  high school librarian in Zimbabwe, hopes to experiment with a cell phone book club. An ideal fit, too, for rural Vermont or Mississippi or the Baltimore slums (maybe even with trans-oceanic Skype sessions with the club in Zimbabwe, for the mutual enlightenment of students on both continents)?

In areas with low cell phone ownership rates, such as rural ones, why not look ahead and consider learn and earn to pay for the phones? Ken Komoski, one of original creators of teaching machines, as an assistant to B. F. Skinner, enjoyed great success with learn and earn in the past. He is also, by the way, keen on the cell phone book club concept. Let’s hope that not-invented-here biases won’t discourage the Digital Public Library of America—an Obama Administration partner in the e-book initiative—from trying out the club idea.

Detail: I am grateful to the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, ManyBooks.net, Smashwords and some other sources of public domain and commercial e-books for supporting the Open Publication Distribution System (OPDS), which is a good way to help turn $20 phones into little libraries and also let people bypass oppressive centralization. Moon+ Reader and FBReader have OPDS built in, as does Aldiko.

OPDS in an easy-to-use-form should be essential for any e-book app that libraries develop. It lets you easily search catalogs from a number of separate collections and avoid use of a Web browser when you download.

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on “Cell phone book clubs: What they’re like and what they can do for K-12 kids, their parents and others
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