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One point of view, taking note of sundry "cool" things that affect-- or could affect-- the education business.

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Friday, August 19, 2005

Laptop High and the "Death" of the Textbook

An Associated Press article (www.ap.org) of August 18 features an initiative at Empire High School in Vail, Arizona. The school has eschewed printed textbooks in favor of issuing a laptop to each student, with e-books of various "normal" textbooks, augmented by the integration of Web-based and other digital content.

Students, of course, think this is the cat's meow. Teachers, at least the ones quoted in the article, are generally positive. And since the program is new, there's little in the way of empirical data to flesh out the practical implications.

The concept isn't completely new. More and more districts are integrating digitally-delivered content, and the computers-to-students ratio is narrowing quickly. At last June's annual National Education Computing Conference (NECC), there were countles exhibits, sessions, and ad-hoc discussions about attaining the magical "1:1" that would unfetter schools from their paper demons, and unleash the power of technology.

The concept is grand. The execution, however, though becoming more accessible, may well have a steep learning curve. That's not a reason to veer away, but teachers, parents, and administrators-- as well as students-- will need to define realistic goals and expectations for such programs. As an industry, we must constantly ask ourselves whether we're adopting the new in favor of the old, rather than adopting the better in favor of the outdated.

Personal computing opens myriad doors for students. Publishers and other technology companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in technology-driven teaching tools, homework systems that grade student work and manage assignments, learning management systems, interactive content, dynamic multimedia content, e-books, websites, games, crossword puzzles, online quizzing, prescriptive learning, and countless other endeavors.

Does this mean publishers want to make the textbook go away? Well, yes and no. One school of thought says that paper is an ancient media, whose days have come and gone, while others believe that until there is literally no technology gap, we can't move anything out of print. The "right" answer, likely, will be a gradual migration of some materials from print to digital delivery, which could reduce the size and/or scale of textbooks, and perhaps dilute their primacy at the center of the educational wheel, without losing what is, frankly, a relatively inexpensive, highly accessible, readily available medium.

As student access to delivery hardware continues to grow, whether in the form of laptops or cell phones or PDAs and handheld computers or tablet PCs, publishers need to look for the and avail themselves of the possibilities inherent in those technologies to ADD VALUE TO the content. In other words, a static page of text represented on a laptop screen adds no more value to the content than its' ink-on-paper cousin. But adding in-context hyperlinks to additional materials, animated graphics, audio, a click-in-place glossary of vocabulary, and so on would literally bring the text-based content to life.

Developing and producing these features in tandem with a text can be expensive and significantly more demanding in terms of time to market. And though the content actually has MORE value, paradoxically, the market demands that digital content be offered at a lower price, because "you don't have the expense of the ink and paper."

The fact is that the costs of printing, paper, and binding-- the manufacturing costs of goods sold-- account for only a fraction of the total investment to bring a textbook family to market. So while there may be a significant reduction in per-unit manufacturing cost, there is an increase in development and production costs that could result in a much higher total per-unit investment.

The financial challenges will work themselves out; the consumer-driven free market usually manages to overcome these things eventually. But the larger questions remain: where is the balance between cost and return? How much value can we add to the materials we produce today, and how will teachers and students access (realize) that additional value? Where do we stop? Does every piece of art, every photo, need to become a multimedia showcase? Does every reference to anything need to be hyperlinked to a Google search? Does every key term need an mp3 pronunciation demonstration and a pop-up definition? How should these items be delivered? In their context, within an e-book? Or in a digital supplement, that can exist as a companion to the text? Does every homework assignment need to derive from a classroom management system with automated grading, personalized prescriptive feedback, and real-time online tutoring resources for the student? Can students text-message a live homework helpline for help from their cell phone? Will teachers subscribe to any number of specialized e-mail list services, newsgroups, RSS feeds, web seminars, classroom management systems, and chat sessions?

The question is no longer simply "what can we do?" The real challenge has become the identification of what we can do well, practically, and deliver to the most students, for the greatest benefit. The quest is to find out how to make the most of the various technologies available, even as we push to make more and more new technology available tomorrow. We are presented this challenge, along with the opportunity to guide education through a major evolutionary threshold.

Cool, huh?

Please comment this blog, and add your thoughts to a discussion on the topic. Is Vail, Arizona, doing the right thing? Too much? Not enough? Are we to tied down with ink on paper? To quick to leap to the "next big thing?" What makes sense; what doesn't?

For great news, views, and resources for educators, check out The Balance Sheet at http://balancesheet.swlearning.com Published by South-Western, a Thomson company.

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