Paper textbooks make way for electronic versions in US, UK

By Helen Pidd  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Sat, Jun 13, 2009 - Page 9

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

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has announced that pupils will soon only be learning from digital texts and experts in the UK said the paperless classroom is becoming a reality there too.

“Today our kids get their information from the Internet, downloaded onto their iPods, and in Twitter feeds to their cell phones ... So why are California’s public school students still forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks?” Schwarzenegger asked.

The move will substantially reduce the US$350 million California spends on school books and other instructional materials each year.

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

Director of educational and academic publishing at the UK’s Publishers’ Association, in the UK, Graham Taylor, said: “In this country [the UK], even more than in the US, there’s a 25-year history of making learning resources available digitally. I would estimate that 20 percent 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 [former British prime minister] Tony Blair came in and talked about ‘education, education, education,’ at least £2 billion [US$3.3 billion] has been invested in learning technology and if things carry on in the same vein, perhaps 40 percent 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 in 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 pupils’ 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 1 million children who don’t have a computer at home in England and Wales, which works out as over 30 percent of the school population,” said a spokeswoman for Becta, the British government agency which promotes the use of IT in schools.

Although all UK schools now have broadband connections, IT provision is still nowhere near good enough to cope with a 100 percent paperless classroom, Citigroup analysts said: “Technology architecture will have to be upgraded to ensure that speed of response in testing is equal for all students. The financial investment in this current economic environment would be a heavy burden.”

Becta says that schools currently average one computer between three students. 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 per child if they are all using all digital resources.

Plus, she says, 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 students,” 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 the other day got it right 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,” she said.