In an effort to cut non-essential expenses and reduce California’s massive $24 billion deficit, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a bold new plan this week: Phase out printed school textbooks in favor of digital learning aids by the end of the year. According to the Gubernator, “The Digital Textbooks initiative… paves the way for easier access to free digital texts in California’s schools. By frequently updating texts as they are developed, rather than continuing to teach from outdated textbooks, we will better prepare our students.”

This would be the first measure of its kind to be implemented in the United States.  While most in the Techie crowd have been drooling over last Monday’s rollout of Apple’s NextGen iPhone 3.0, some of us in the education/technology crossover are excited to hear this particular development. Online-based learning is a concept that’s been touted by everyone from Bill Gates to the President. Yet, it has been long overdue. While most new technology find their way into the mainstream via commercials interests onward, a major overhaul of an institution as deep-rooted as the educational system would normally take a generation of change. That is, unless change begins from the top-down. We are sitting on a critical junction of civilization, when the Old Ways of learning and working are finding its limitations, forcing us to the New.  By all accounts, the vision of a true 21st Century classroom should have happened years ago; yet resistance to it – active or passive – has prevented its fruition. Until recently, most politicians have understood very little of technology’s true potential, and have foregone investing in future generations, while allowing their industrial supporters to create red herrings such as railway connections. The railways, in turn, have been used less and less over time, as fewer people are commuting to work these days. In other states, budget concerns have made any discussion of digitally-enhanced learning to be a non-issue.

We have come full circle on budget concerns… here in California, at least.  Forced to think up ways to slash expenses, The Big Gube reviewed everything from cuts to HIV clinics to welfare, and what not.  I’m no big fan of The Gube, but this time I’ll give a tip of the hat to him, or whoever in his cabinet was bright enough to think outside the box. Make no mistake about it, Schwarzenegger isn’t doing this necessarily as a press-ops to boost morale, or to win over the Green crowd. Environmental critics got it all wrong; nowhere in his address does he ever mention anything about “going green” and reducing our carbon footprint. While it’s nice to save a few trees, the rationale behind the initiative is anything but. Neither does he specifically mention anything about the obsolescence of traditional learning/teaching methods, and wisely so. For the most part, his remarks about the initiative took on a broad, lofty encompassing of California leading the way in technology – and after this becomes reality, in education.  The less glamorous parts were about drastic cost-cutting, in a state whose budget is now on life-support. So instead of the “Judgment Day” scenario that we had been bracing ourselves for, The Gube pulled off a semi-coup that inspires some, if not all Californians.


The Gubernator in Calablackless… whoops, I meant Calabasas (haha)

That’s the Digital Textbook Initiative for you – on Paper.  How it becomes reality is another story. There have been doubts raised about the actual costs that will ultimately be involved. Many respondents to various news feeds have made the assumption that laptops would be involved. Well, for those of you not keeping up to date with the Tech News,  shame on you! Ever heard of the Kindle eBook reader from Amazon? At the moment, the latest generation reading device has an average retail cost of about $300. Not cheap, but still not as expensive as a laptop (around $500-$600 a pop, plus costs for software and periphs). As a former educator, I am not keen on having students use laptops; don’t you know people play games and hang around on Facebook? A Kindle reader limits what the laziest student can get away with. Also, when eBook reading devices are mass-produced, manufacturing costs would be reduced significantly, which would more than justify their existence in schools.  The biggest perk of digital textbooks would be that they save a bundle in printing costs, something that has caused outrage all the way to higher education. Since updates on older editions could simply be downloaded, it could easily cut educational costs by as much as three-quarters off!  If, say, $100 million was spent on textbooks all over California public schools, use of digital textbooks in schools could result in hypothetical savings of up to $75 million per year, after the first 2-3 years. That sure as heck is enough to feel excitement and joy!

Not everyone will be excited about this plan, though. First of all, brick-and-mortar printing and publishing companies will be among the hardest hit.  Apparently, Pearson and some others already have an online presence, so they won’t die out so soon. The bigger deal out of this, however, is that with printing headaches no longer an obstacle, smaller indie publishers with quality material would make the market for online textbooks more competetive. It would also encourage technical writers to bypass the normally cumbersome evaluation process that accompanies publishing a school-worthy textbook, the same way musicians now market directly to their audiences.

How this impacts traditional teaching, on the other hand, is the $500 million dollar question. As has often been discussed in forums (and is beyond the scope of this article), person-to-person teaching has, and always will be, a priceless and integral part of the educational process that cannot be replaced. Just because one can read the instructions on how to change the oil in one’s car or balance one’s checkbook (touche!) – that doesn’t mean the work will be done right.  There are plenty of intangibles that come with both (as with a lot of other tasks). Raw information alone should never, ever be a substitute.  Ultimately, despite all the digitizing of our books and manuals, we must never forget that Technology is not a god to prostrate ourselves to, but a tool that we must leverage in order to improve our lives. Here’s looking forward to a New  Age in Education.

Here are a few related links for further reading:

Schwarzenegger: Digital Textbooks Can Save Money, Improve Learning

Leading the Nation Into a Digital Textbook Future

CA Schools See Distant Digital Future for Textbooks

Schools May Copy Schwarzenegger & Junk Their Textbooks

Copyright Anabasius 2009


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