R. Rose
August 21, 2009
Going ‘beyond textbooks’

“Parents of this large group, the majority of our school-goers, face enormous challenges in sending children to school. The astronomical cost of textbooks is something which calls out for redress. Is it too much to ask whether it is absolutely necessary in a poor country to pursue a method of education which causes so much stress, pain and hardship? Can we not seek creative alternatives to the traditional procurement of a long list of books? Does modern technology afford us an opportunity for non-traditional and cheaper approaches?…”{{more}}

(Taken from EDITORIAL, SEARCHLIGHT, July 31, 2009)

Three weeks ago the SEARCHLIGHT newspaper, in commenting on the problems which parents face in funding the cost of educating their children, raised the idea of using modern technology in a creative way to address the financial challenge. There is also another side to the problem-the burden that our children must daily carry each school-day in toting bags of heavy books to and from school. It would be good to hear from both educators and parents alike on the matter, for we all should be concerned about it. In the meantime, however, New York-based Vincy patriot Maxwell Haywood has sent me a very interesting piece on the same topic which I would like to share with our readers.

The thought-provoking piece is entitled “TEXTBOOKS ARE HISTORY” and is taken from the New York Times, August 9, 2009. In it, the writer looks at modern trends in communication technology and virtually predicts that textbooks may well be on their way out as technological developments may very well render them obsolete. It is an argument well worth pursuing, especially in light of those problems highlighted by the SEARCHLIGHT Editorial. Permit me to share some of it with you.

The New York Times article makes reference to developments in several communities in the United States of America where experiments in adapting technology to educational needs are being undertaken. Thus in Empire High School, Vail, Arizona, students have begun using computers from their school to get lessons, do homework and hear podcasts of lectures.This introduces tremendous flexibility in acessing educational materials. Earlier this year, I had asked a visiting friend of mine why his daughter was with him on vacation when school was in session in her country of residence. He pointed out that she was not actually missing much, since by prior arrangement the school was sending her assignments and homework online which she was doing under his supervision daily.

In another community, the New York Times continued, students at Cienage High School who have access to laptop computers use them to register for “digital sections” of several classes such as English, History and Science. Throughout the whole District, the paper continues, the “Beyond Textbooks” initiative encourages teachers to create and share lessons which incorporate powerpoint presentations and research materials, sifting through various Internet sites.

More examples from other parts of the United States are related by the article.It mentions the state of California, for instance, America’s most populous state, where the Governor, one-time movie star Arnold Schwatzenegger, announced a summer initiative to replace some High School science and maths texts with free “open-source” digital versions. The Governor hopes that this could save his almost-bankrupt state hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Readers may be interested to note that it is expected that such an initiative can save students from lugging around what is described as “antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks”. (Physical burden lifted off the backs of students and the financial ones lightened for parents).

Two other examples will suffice. In the first, William Habermehl, Superintendent of Orange Couty schools, with a combined total of half a million students, is quoted as saying, “…in five years the majority of students will be using digital texts”. He urges the county’s residents to move away from the traditional approach of say 30 students to one teacher, and to think in terms of 200/300 students “..taking courses online, at night, 24/7, whenever they want…” Such thinking will be reinforced by the second example, that of the proposal by President Barack Obama himself, to invest in free online courses for students.

Overall, says the NY Times, there are many educators who believe that printed textbooks will be replaced by digital versions or suplemented by lessons with the use of free courseware, educational games, videos and so on. It notes that there is an objective basis for this since children of the modern generation are “…digitally nimble, multitasked, can transpose and extrapolate….they think of knowledge as infinite…”

However, critics of this modernization approach, including traditionalists, worry that this can in fact serve to widen the gap between rich and poor, since children of poor parents will not be able to afford to purchase computers and poor communities and countries lack the resources to make the available for all. It is certainly a genuine concern but one which can be overcome. Indeed some international organizations are already proceeding with projects such as “A laptop for every child”. Additionally, the total cost of purchasing textbooks throughout the school life far outweighs the cost of a couple computers.

There is no quick-fix overnight solution but we cannot ignore the advances of modern technology or neglect to make use of them. I leave the deepening of the discussion to those much more competent than me in such a field.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.