The end of textbooks?

They have weighed down satchels, been hurled across classrooms and defaced with lewd graffiti by schoolchildren across the ages. But the humble textbook looks to be going the way of the Walkman—in California at least.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has announced that learners will soon be learning only from digital texts and experts in the UK said recently the paperless classroom is becoming a reality here too.

“Today our kids get their information from the internet, downloaded on to their iPods, and in Twitter feeds to their cellphones… So why are California’s public school learners still forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks?” asked the Terminator actor, in his capacity as state governor. The move will reduce substantially the $350-million California spends on school books and other instructional materials each year.

Where California leads, others have often followed. The sunshine state added avocado to sushi rolls, popularised jogging and revolutionised the world of computing in Silicon Valley.

Graham Taylor, director of educational and academic publishing at the Publishers’ Association in the UK, said: “In this country [the UK], even more than in the United States, there’s a 25-year history of making learning resources available digitally. I would estimate that 20% of learning resources delivered to primary and secondary schools in the UK are already purely digital.

“That has probably been achieved mostly in the past 10 years. Ever since Tony Blair came in and talked about ‘education, education, education’, at least £2-billion has been invested in learning technology and, if things carry on in the same vein, perhaps 40% of educational resources will be digital in 10 years’ time.”

Publishers such as Hodder Education already offer a range of online resources alongside conventional textbooks and Pearson sells electronic versions of most of its textbooks, either in interactive form, or as a straight portable document format (pdf). Last year Pearson earned £960-million revenue from its digital products and services—around a fifth of its total revenue.

Many teachers also like the idea of not spending hours photocopying worksheets and not teaching from old books annotated with learners’ scribbles.

One electronic believer, writing on the TeachPaperless blog, wrote: “I’ve spent my entire academic career—both as a student and as a teacher—in the humanities and social sciences. The reason I don’t need a textbook in English class or in history class is because I can grab anything I need from the internet or the library; the reason I don’t need a textbook in teaching a foreign language is because of the vast resources of the web and the resourcefulness of my own experience working with the language.”

But the textbook isn’t about to die a sudden death—especially not in the UK, where many children still do not have access to the internet at home.

“There are still one million children who don’t have a computer at home in England and Wales, which works out as more than 30% of the school population,” according to a spokeswoman for Becta, the British government agency that promotes the use of IT in schools.

Although all UK schools now have broadband connections, IT provision is nowhere near good enough to cope with a 100% paperless classroom, according to Citigroup analysts.

“Technology architecture will have to be upgraded to ensure that speed of response in testing is equal for all learners. The financial investment in this current economic environment would be a heavy burden.”

Becta said that schools currently average one computer between three learners. But according to Ros Sutherland, professor in education at Bristol University, England, who co-authored a book called Improving Classroom Learning with ICT, schools really need one computer a child if they are all using all digital resources. Plus, she said, books offer something that digital resources just can’t replicate.

“You can flick back and forth in them quickly, you can scribble in them, it’s easy to share one between a number of learners,” she said. “Though theoretically electronic textbooks can be much more interactive, the current reality is that a lot of them are little more than pdf versions of the paper book. A colleague of mine got it right the other day when he said that if you could invent anything that’s as powerful as the book in the next 100 years we’ll have done well.”—Guardian News & Media 2009



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