Open eBooks, an e-reader app that makes thousands of books available to children in need for free, launched on February 24. President Obama announced the nongovernmental effort in support of the ConnectED Initiative.
The initiative’s partners—Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), First Book, The New York Public Library, and digital books distributor Baker & Taylor—received financial support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and content from publishers Bloomsbury, Candlewick, Cricket Media, Hachette, HarperCollins, Lee & Low, Macmillan, National Geographic, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster. The specific books in the collection were selected by the DPLA Curation Corps.
How does it work?
Individual educators go to the Open eBooks site to register their class(es) to receive the codes that will enable each student to access the app. A confirmation email is then sent that contains the number of codes requested and a letter for students to bring home that explains how to use the app.
Who qualifies to register?
The app is available through Title I and Title I-eligible schools as well as libraries, preschools, and community after-school programs serving a minimum of 70 percent children in need, military families, or special needs children. “It is not limited to just special needs schools,” a First Book members services representative told SLJ in an email. “Any classroom that serves special needs children would be eligible.”
Educators’ response to the overall initiative was positive. “DCWG welcomes the Open eBooks program and salutes the publishers who have agreed to make a broad array of current titles in both fiction and nonfiction available to children in Title 1 schools and other eligible sites,” says Carolyn Anthony, co-chair of ALA’s Digital Content Working Group.
“At least one of my students’ favorite authors, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, has some books on the app. I’m ready to give it a try!” says JoAnne Reed, a librarian from the Denver Harbor neighborhood of Houston.
Chad Heck, librarian at Pike High School Freshman Campus in Indianapolis, though happy with his current ebook collection, is excited about Open eBooks. “In OverDrive, we have the option to purchase a wider variety of books than are available in Open eBooks,” he explains. “However, this program is useful to us. Frequently, in classroom settings, multiple copies of books are needed. We don’t have the budget to buy more than one or two copies of most books. We are going to look at using multiple copies of books with Open eBooks.”
Kids are being missed
While Open eBooks casts a wide net, needy kids still fall through the holes. Though the Open eBooks press release stated, “The initiative is designed to address the challenge of providing digital reading materials to children living in low-income households,” it appears that household income is not the determinant factor in whether any particular child qualifies to receive a code. “I only wish we had the ability to sign up individual students,” Mary Clark wrote in a comment on SLJ.com. “I work in a fairly affluent middle school, but several students qualify for free lunch who desperately need access to books while school is not in session.”
Fellow commenter Margaret Bokelman agreed. “I read about the program with so much excitement, only to feel very disappointed that our school does not qualify. We have….students who are extremely wealthy, yet 25 percent of our students qualify for free lunch. I sure wish I could make this program available to them.”
The opposite scenario is at play as well: some children who aren’t from low-income households qualify. In an email to SLJ, First Book Member Services said, “As for Title 1 schools, every child is eligible. Every child at a school or organization that serves 70 percent or more children in need is also eligible, regardless of their status.”
Open eBooks encourages “students who are not able to qualify through their schools to check with their local library.” Helen Whittaker, librarian at the Kingsport (TN) Public Library, agrees this could be a viable option for school librarians who are concerned about specific students. “We work with the schools to get library cards to all students. These cards then give them access to free ebooks and audiobooks.” Whittaker notes that Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCAs, which operate in the summer as well as during the school year, may distribute free books.
Another option for such school librarians is subscribing to Tumblebooks. A big plus of that service is that it offers animated books with a read-along feature, as well as options for older children and teens, reports Whittaker. “The price is reasonable, too. We have Tumblebooks and love it.”
While Internet access remains a major hurdle in closing the digital divide, a recent survey by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center seemed to indicate that mobile device availability was less of an issue. The report found that 85 percent of households below the poverty line with children age six to 13 have a tablet or smartphone. “While this is not the case for all families, I do see this effort as a positive step towards future initiatives,” says Claire Moore, head of children and teen services at the Darien (CT) library.
Even students who qualify to use the Open eBooks app will need to have the right digital tools at hand. The app works on iOS8 for iPhone and iPad, and on Android 5.0 (released in September and October, 2014 respectively).
Cheryl Youse, media specialist and webmaster at Colquitt County High School in Norman Park, GA, expressed frustration at the operating system requirements, since her students don’t have phones that meet them. “And the school iPads I have are long since obsolete and no longer updateable,” she says.
Complicating matters is that many schools around the country use Chromebooks as their 1:1 technology for students. Those don’t use the Android or iOS operating system, so those students will not be able to access Open eBooks resources until a Chrome extension is developed, or a web-based platform is released.
FEW front-end bugs
Registrants who were attempting to obtain codes for students at qualified schools seemed to have few complaints about the initial sign-in process, or at least few complaints that couldn’t be resolved.
“The website is clunky, but we managed to get codes for a single class. This is not designed for district library administrators. We will simplify it before giving it to teachers,” says Kate MacMillan, coordinator of library services and digital resource project manager at Napa Valley (CA) Unified School District.
“The only problem I ran into was verifying that my school was eligible,” shares Heck. “My school is in the odd situation that we qualify to be a Title 1 school, but have declined to receive Title 1 services. Qualifying for Title 1 is enough to qualify for this program, but at sign-up got an automated message saying my school didn’t qualify.” However, Heck was able to resolve the issue by calling the support number.
Amy Koester, youth and family program developer in the Learning Experience Department at Skokie (IL) Public Library, who has worked on apps and with app developers, suggests reaching out to First Book with any issues with the platform or interface. “New products and initiatives often get the best troubleshooting and improvements once they go live, and feedback that can help make the product more accessible to the target audience is going to help reach more readers in the long run,” she explains.
Sarah Sayigh, school librarian at the Du Sable High School campus on the south side of Chicago, hasn’t personally tried the app, but hasn’t seen enthusiasm for ebooks in general among her students. “They’re invisible,” she reports. “Our district has purchased them, but students think it’s too complicated to use them.”
“The Open eBooks collection is missing the classics that students are typically [assigned], such as The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men. I’m using this as an opportunity to push my agenda of [assigning] more recent materials, but at the same time, I do think it’s important to have access to classics,” says Heck.
A few educators have commented that it’s difficult to effectively search. “From my perspective, the app was limited because, unless I had a specific title, I was just scrolling through a bunch of book icons. I guess it’s what kids do when they wander through the stacks, but I would like the option to narrow the search by reading levels,” says Connie Harrison, media specialist at Dearborn (MI) Public Schools.
“It is what it is,” summed up Julie Dahlhauser, a librarian at Haywood High School in Brownsville, TN. “Its strengths are that it is free; that it allows for a one-time access code that does not require logging in every time; and that the access code is anonymous so we can be sure that no one is collecting data on children. But it will not replace a school’s own ebook collection, and it will certainly not replace a knowledgeable librarian putting the right book into a student’s hands.”
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