Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Replacing Textbooks With Electronics

If you drop a textbook in the water, you can dry it out and maybe get charged $20 for damages at the end of the year. Drop a Kindle in the water....

Well, some schools are talking about switching to Kindles, or perhaps to open source online textbooks, instead of ordinary "dead tree" textbooks. I'm no Luddite, but there are a few problems with this idea--at least at the K-12 level.

I've already pointed out one of the problems, above. How about these:
  • I couldn't charge my Kindle last night because the power was out.
  • Jam it a little too hard into the backpack or locker, and...
  • I couldn't do my homework because I left my Kindle in my mom's car and I'm at dad's house this week.
  • The lower the SES of the student, the more transient is the student. You understand how that relates to Kindles.
  • Every student doesn't have a computer or internet access. Issuing such equipment would be costly, and under state law we can't currently require such equipment at home.
There are plenty of other thoughts in the comments.

Most of these negatives come down to this: you don't value what you don't pay for. In California, students don't pay for books, not even a deposit. The fruits of this policy are clear the first week of school every year, when students are issued, uh, "worn" textbooks.

But university students pay for their books. I can see tremendous value in university students' buying digital books for their Kindles. However, someone will always make a buck, as commenter Beggar points out in the first link above:

"I have purchased some of my college textbooks as electronic copies rather than print... as you'd guess, there was very little difference in the price between the two... Imagine that, do away with the costs of printing and distribution and yet there's not substantial savings to pass on to me.

How, exactly, is this going to save us any money?"
It probably won't, unfortunately. There's too much money to be made in the textbook business for publishers to just give up that easily. I love the idea of open source materials, though, especially for K-12. In fact, one Connecticut district is taking a step in that direction, with algebra.

Oh, and at the first link? Commenter Darren65 makes some brilliant observations.


Ellen K said...

A local low income and majority minority middle school got a grant to buy laptops. So they charged each student $30 for insurance. The result? More than 30% were stolen outright and found in pawnshops. Over half ended up riddled with porn and viruses due to family members using them. The rest were often abused, forgotten or dropped. In short, because the laptops didn't belong to the kids, they and their families abused them. The program was dropped after a year. The moral is this-if you give somebody something for free, they don't respect the work or expense required to obtain it. But if you try to make those same people pay to replace it, you get lambasted by the media.

Mrs. C said...

Ok. You just don't give transcripts or diplomas to anyone who hasn't paid their fines/ turned in their equipment.

Oh. And whoopsie, you don't transfer records out of district either. Problem solved. You're welcome.


allen (in Michigan) said...

- Kindle? Kindles are so 2009. I figure by this time next year we'll have sub-$200 netbooks with $100 netbooks hot on their heels. My guess is that as that stuff gets more enery-efficient and more central to our lives we'll also see more of alternatives for electric power. Everything from the usual suspects like solar cells and wind-up generators ala Freebird to more exotic stuff like home co-generation gadgetry and fuel cells.

- They'll be more rugged as well. Who's going to treat a $100 computer like it's something special? The ones that break easily will quickly lose market share.

- Log into your school account and download your assignments, textbooks, etc.

- At $100 per the kids'll have their own.

- I predict that municipal wireless will make a come-back as the cost of establishing the system continues to drop and the breadth of functions the network performs continues to expand.

What's really annoying is that the one task in education to which computers are uniquely suited - testing - never gets mentioned by anyone. Everyone thinks that replacing illustrations with Flash animations is the pedagogic Holy Grail although no one quite seems up to the task of explaining why.

I agree about open source textbooks even though I'm involved with Wikibooks - the profit margins are so lush the publishers will bend every rule and beat every bush to hang onto their sweet deals.

It won't matter though. Open source will win although it'll be the charters that pull open source textbooks into the mainstream and not the districts. Charters have independence. More important then that though is the tight budgets that charters are kept on. If charters can save a buck with open source textbooks they'll be strongly motivated to use them.

Pomoprophet said...

I teach at Univ of Phoenix and our textbooks are all online for the students. I have made it a point to find each textbook and amazon and order it for myself. I much prefer having a book in class I can access and having something to highlight. Call me old fashioned but some things just aren't replaceable!

mazenko said...

I was wondering how long it would take you to post on this. After I saw the story, I knew it was coming.

I'm with you, on k-12 especially. There is much money wasted on $120 chem books for ninth graders.

Anonymous said...

Bring back the small textbooks, the antique textbooks of yesteryear. Five of them would not weigh more than one of today's texts, nor cost as much (Although I know that defeats the purpose of today's publishers). Anybody want to start a different kind of textbook company?


Darren said...

My students marvel at the almost pocket-sized algebra book I have from the 1940s. No flashy full-color illustrations of kids on skateboards, but plenty of math and plenty of practice problems.

Anonymous said...

You can also download books, ahem, illegally, from various places on the Internet. With the majority of teenagers knowing of such sources, this could become a bit of an issue.

The Future said...

You can argue pros and cons, but it's going to happen. There will be bumps along the way, but griping about it and marveling about how good things were in the olden days is pointless.

Darren said...

I'm not so sure. Sometimes "the old way" is just the best way. People have been using hammers and nails for a long time now, and while there have been new things invented, they still sell just fine at the Home Depot.

maxutils said...

The day I am forced to read a book, any book, electronically is the day I wish someone to take me out into the pasture and shoot me. With a gun, please; not some super high tech death ray.