An internet outage at my store this week and a conversation with my sister, a fifth-grade teacher, got me back to a topic I avoid thinking about, digital and on-line books. Apparently some text book publishers are considering eliminating printed books, offering only online versions to schools. This “progress” is not being greeted with glee by the teaching profession. As one who is always willing to expound on the limitations of electronic books, I decided to do a little research on this particular subset of digitized materials.
There is no doubt that on-line resources can greatly enhance learning. Interactive lessons can keep a student’s attention from straying. Additional information on a topic that piques interest can be supplied quickly. In subject areas where material requires constant revision and years-old printed books are obsolete, current data can be supplied quickly. Homework is not delayed because the book was “forgotten” (often because it was impossible to stuff one more thick tome into the bulging backpack). But the wholesale switch from a proven method for conveying information to a newer one, just because it is new, and without planning or anticipation of pitfalls, seems to be wreaking havoc in some school districts around the country.
The state of Florida has set a goal of having 50% of its textbooks in electronic format by 2015. One school district moved toward this objective last fall by replacing its Social Studies textbooks with online versions, purchasing a few printed copies for each classroom. Not enough research was done on the student body’s access to computers outside the classroom. Although some computers were available for students to borrow, there were not nearly enough. And (surprise!) families without computers in the home did not have internet access. Many homes had one computer shared by the family; three children, one computer, who gets to do his homework tonight? Even with computer access, there were difficulties in logging on or accessing the right material, and no help was available. Those who were unable to borrow computers were told to use the school or public library. Using the school library required missing extracurricular activities; public library hours had been shortened and some evenings eliminated due to budget constraints. Some money may have been saved on printed books, but learning suffered, and the disadvantaged students are now even more disadvantaged.
Fairfax County, Virginia, certainly not a disadvantaged area, having successfully integrated online learning in a few subjects with planning and training, did a wholesale elimination of math textbooks. Comments on this change included all of the problems found in Florida, plus many more found by frustrated parents. One mother whose child had a doctor’s appointment and wanted her child to do his homework while waiting found that the software would not allow them to print the material; cutting and pasting didn’t work; it could not be downloaded to a reader or an iPhone; bringing the desktop to the doctor’s office was a bit much. So the work didn’t get done. Other parents bought textbooks for their children on Amazon so they could carry their work to with them (no better place to get your homework done than at your brother’s swim meet!) Teachers found difficulties in accessing the software even at school, and wound up making up their own lesson plans and printing their own material. Some schools ran out of the monthly allotment of paper by the 10th of the month. A great savings.
For those who were able to access a computer easily, there were still problems. Text was compacted two pages to one screen, with no zoom capability, and thus illegible. Graphs were cut off. There was no search capability, and soon printed books, purchased by the family, were the preferred method for referring to other parts of the text for information. Having had my own horrible experiences with scanned electronic books, I understand the frustration. This was not a system designed for online learning, but a cheap scanned version of printed matter.
Arne Duncan, in a speech to the National Press Club last fall, called for making printed textbooks obsolete as a way of keeping up with other countries who are outperforming us with online learning. It seems to me that just scanning books and throwing away the printed copies is a little too simplistic. I hope this isn’t what he meant. With careful planning, online and digital books and other materials can enhance the curriculum. Interactive programs can ensure that each student grasps a concept before moving on to the next. Different sources can be accessed for different topics, instead of using one publisher’s product for an entire year. None of this can be done overnight, and it will be expensive to do well.
Duncan used South Korea has an example of a country that is outpacing the US in educational results and which is moving more quickly to digital learning. What seems to be overlooked is that South Korea is one of the most “wired” countries in the world. We are shamefully behind many countries in internet access, and cannot expect our students to compete without that access. How many families can afford a laptop or iPad or even smart phone for each child, never mind the data charges incurred to make these devices portable? Our schools are trying to save money in every way, including eliminating textbooks, but where is the investment in the supportive infrastructure, the bandwidth, the up-to-date networks, the “IT” staff to support the teaching professionals? Some teachers spend half a class period helping students log on to slow, aging computer systems, losing valuable learning time. Sometimes access is unavailable, and alternative lesson plans have to be ready. On paper.
I spent one day at my store without internet access this week, and explained to a few customers that I could not easily check book availability. Not a big deal. If publishers choose to eliminate printed textbooks, or school districts refuse to purchase them, what’s a teacher with a classroom full of students supposed to do when the computer system fails? There needs to be a lot more thinking, planning and preparing for digital education before the book burning begins.
P. S. After writing the above in Word, it was time to post. It took 20 minutes to logon to Typepad and get to the "Compose New Post" page. When I pasted in my post, all of my paragraph breaks were gone. You know, with computers, stuff just happens. Glad I didn't have a room full of students waiting.