20 January 2012

Public Schools & iBooks

Apple's plan to transform textbooks into electronic format absolutely brilliant.  This new approach creates fantastic interactive devices that can not only make learning more entertaining but also help us to retain information faster.  Books that change their approach based on your learning style with videos and games to reinforce the experience is absolutely the future of learning.  The question now is: When will we see these in the classroom?

In higher education these features can be implemented immediately.  College students already need to buy high tech devices and spend hundreds on textbooks every term so this is a no-brainer.  Publishers release new editions on seemingly a weekly basis and students are forced to make those investments.  In elementary and secondary ed the tail of education reform is far longer where we are still battling with the adjustments of No Child Left Behind.  It could take a decade before this sort of feature becomes common.

The primary challenge in this transition is financial, as others have already pointed out.  Annually the public education system spends in the neighborhood of $10,000 per child.  Admittedly, it should be double that amount for our population to properly compete in the flat world we live in but we will save that discussion for another day.  Textbooks are (unfortunately) often used for decades despite the fact that the material changes every few years and this problem is especially acute in less wealthy districts because the cost of this material is ridiculously high.  Given the choice of hiring additional teachers to reduce class size or buying new text books the school districts usually pick the teachers.

We often confuse the expense of these books with the manufacturing process but that part of the equation is irrelevant.  Most of the dollars go toward the process of building the information, testing the learning experience, hiring the best authors and educators -- these things are expensive.  When we move to this new model of electronic books these companies will have exciting new options to improve the education experience but that will easily eat up all of the book manufacturing costs that they had previously.  In other words:  In the best case scenario, these new electronic books are going to cost just as much as the physical ones we used previously.  That's the good news.  The bad news is to do this properly school districts will need to dump all of their physical books and re-purchase their entire school library of materials.  You cannot imagine how expensive a proposition that is to a school district.

One of the big advantages of an electronic book is the ability for them to easily be updated by the publisher without shipping out new books.  This is another huge opportunity for education since the material will never go stale, provided the school district continues to write checks to the companies producing the new editions.  This means, ongoing, the budget for books at the school district is potentially much higher than it was previously.

Unfortunately, the problem gets worse.  In order to use these materials every student is going to need a high end iPad will be needed because these books require gigabytes of space each.  While these tablets are wonderful learning tools, Apple makes them obsolete annually with their new versions because they are still evolving so quickly which could mean five years or more before we have stabilization.  Even a bigger concern is that fragility of this hardware with kids.  Textbooks can handle being tossed on the desk or used as a frisbee in the hallway but an iPad will not fare well.  Technology hardware is tested for a three years lifespan, excluding obsolescence, so let's assume it matches that timeframe and assume a case can protect it.  In this best case scenario we can expect a thousand dollar expense per child - not including the price of the textbooks.

Another problem is the continued need to purchase a computer.  Some may argue that students could learn PowerPoint, word processing and spreadsheets on a tablet but those of us in the corporate world would say otherwise.  Perhaps with Microsoft's upcoming release of Office for the iPad the need for putting laptops in the class will change but, as it stands today, a tablet is not going to cut it.  When you consider the investment many school districts have already made on these devices, you can bet many of them just want Apple to release this new iBook model for Windows / OSX computers so they do not need to buy additional hardware.

Personally, I am really excited about what Apple is doing because they are pushing the envelope of education.  Our school districts should have the additional funds to make this investment (plus lower class sizes, freedom to innovate without stifling testing requirements, etc) because I definitely believe it would improve how our kids learn.  I have no doubt that these new electronic books will be the greatest text books ever made - the question is when our school districts will be able to afford to implement them and what they will have to cut to do it.