My district recently went through a textbook adoption. I was on the adoption committee, and on several occasions, the conversation with parents, the school board, and teachers drifted toward the concept of electronic textbooks. Because I am a geek and well-known for my ownership of an iPad, Kindle, and Tablet computer, I was often pegged with many of these questions. My answer was simple and honest: I don’t think electronic textbooks are good for schools and students.
Interestingly, Texas State policy makers have been tackling this same argument of traditional textbooks or electronic textbooks. Many state politicians want to move toward E-texts and electronic resources as a way to cut costs and “move eduction into the 21st century.” School districts in California have already began moving towards electronic textbooks in lieu of traditional books. From my experience, electronic textbooks are not the best option for public schools.
Problems with Electronic Textbooks for Public Schools
The cost savings may not be real. The average cost of a traditional textbook is approximately $50-$75 per subject. This means, in a typical student day, a learner would have between $300 and $500 of textbooks for their different content areas. Many schools do not have a “one textbook per child” policy and only offer class sets of textbooks with online or at home support materials. The idea of a Kindle or iPad for students sounds great. You can replace hundreds of dollars in textbooks with a single $140 kindle device plus Ebooks. The problem is that a replacement device will cost an additional $140. If you are talking about an iPad, you are looking at a device that costs over $400 to replace. The traditional textbook only becomes obsolete when the information within is updated. An electronic textbook is obsolete in the next product cycle, firmware upgrade, file codex or battery technology. The textbook series we just purchased for Language Arts and Reading is expected to last seven years. My iPad will be obsolete as soon as the new device is released in early 2011.
Teacher training and professional development is very expensive. With traditional textbooks, educators are very aware of how to use them, monitor student use of them and how to protect them. The paradigm shift required to allow students to use Ebooks would require extensive training of every teacher in a district. This is time taken away from other district initiatives or professional development. If the professional development is not done correctly, the electronic textbooks will not be used effectively and the tech money would have been wasted. From the basics of teachers needing to learn how to monitor what students are actually doing on a personal device to how to highlight and reference the material – electronic textbooks represent a completely new pedagogy.
Setting up the devices is costly. I spend several hours managing my electronic devices. In fact, the human cost of managing technology is often more expensive than the device itself. If my school were to purchase 700 iPads (one per student), there would need to be several dedicated IT professionals required to manage the devices. My entire school district has enough IT personnel to visit a school building once per week. The management budget would need to be substantially increased, further eating into the cost savings of electronic textbooks.
Wireless networking access is expensive and hard to control. In order to have 700 iPads or other WiFi enabled electronic textbooks online, our network infrastructure would need to be substantially improved. System monitoring, filtering, and the requisite bandwidth must be factored into the end cost of Ebooks. Again, the cost savings of the actual devices is eroded quickly once the support and maintenance infrastructure is factored in. Unfortunately, the cost of management and infrastructure will most likely not be the concern of state officials. State legislators will decide that electronic textbooks must be purchased to save money and districts will spend millions to compensate for an unfunded mandate.
Traditional textbooks don’t get stolen, broken, or vandalized beyond repair.
It is undeniable that electronic textbooks would dramatically raise the technology level in the classroom and provide a more entertaining education experience. They will not be easier to use, cheaper to supply, or lead to student achievement. Before educational policy makers make sweeping changes in the way content is delivered, all of the unintended consequences must be fully explored and accounted for. Once the hard work has been done, we will find that electronic textbooks are the wrong choice for schools.