If you are already ahead of the pack, do you look over your shoulder to see how close your competitors are or do you look straight ahead and push harder to stay in the lead? For Korea, you push harder. On the 2009 PISA test, Korea was first in the Digital Reading Assessment scoring 568 (OECD nations came in at 499, China at 515, with the U.S. at 500).
A governmental strategy for decades to keep Korea economically competitive with Japan, China, the U.S., and western European nations has been to improve schools through greater classroom use of technologies (smart phones, tablets, whiteboards, television, etc.), online courses, and access to higher education. Consistent with that strategy is the recent announcement from the Ministry of Education that all elementary textbooks would be digitized by 2014 and a year later all secondary school ones. Yes, all textbooks.
In the U.S., some states and districts have digital textbooks but it remains a district-by-district decision. Still, the trendline is toward digital texts. Often driven by budget cuts and complaints of ever-rising costs of buying hard-copy books, the lure of cheaper e-book readers, iPads, and smart phones that can store and deliver content with an instant click is simply irresistible.
Ignore the hyper-ventilating rhetoric from government sources in Korea or U.S. officials–“This project reinvents the way students learn and will revolutionize instruction in Florida”–since we have heard such exaggerated claims ad nauseam. Past performance of electronic innovations (instructional television, online instruction, desktop computers, laptops, interactive whiteboards, etc.) have been underwhelming in transforming either teaching and learning. But do pay attention to issues that will arise since those informed about the history of technological advances can anticipate both pluses and minuses when all texts become digital.
In higher education where digital textbooks have been introduced over the past decades both pluses and minuses have arisen. The major plus is the reduced cost of an E-textbook, about one-half to two-thirds less than a printed one. Textbook prices have escalated sharply in the past decade and students that have to buy four or five books each semester are laying out over a thousand dollars. Downloading a literature or human biology book to an iPad or Kindle represents a huge savings for students.
There are substantial minuses (see Friesen on etextbook-1). The shelf list of available textbooks remains limited. Although restricted choice of texts will change as vendors and publishers work out how to make authorial content of texts available and profitable as has happened in the music industry, currently the texts students seek are often unavailable. Moreover, the few pilot programs using Kindles and other readers have yet to satisfy students who want to take notes and interact with texts in ways familiar to them. Selecting, using, and integrating e-textbooks into course management systems (e.g., Blackboard) still have a distance to travel in the higher education market.
And when it comes to the K-12 market, the issue of every student having a laptop or hand-held device remains dicey. Surely, 1:1 computing rates have risen dramatically in the past decade but, unlike higher education where students buy their devices, in K-12, districts have to insure that each and every student has access to a tablet or smart phone and all of the infrastructure necessary to sustain regular use. The costs for initial purchases of iPads, Kindles, or similar devices have to be calculated as well as maintenance and replacement expenditures.
There are other issues as well. The World Bank’s Michael Trucano has raised important questions about the Korean initiative and any nation seeking to adopt all-digital textbooks.
* “Will digital textbooks simply ‘replace’ existing textbooks, providing ‘jazzier’ educational content, but be utilized by students and teachers in much the same way as paper-bound textbooks were in the past?”
*”While ‘going all digital’ might be a welcome development for Korean industry, what will the impact be on learning”
Trucano points out that “Korea already scores at or near the top of most comparative international assessments, its path to ‘improvement’ may not be as clearly defined as it is for policymakers in countries whose students score lower on such tests that those in Korea (or in other high performing systems, like those in Shanghai and Singapore).
*Will students’ privacy be protected?
Trucano imagines a scenario:
“Student: I read that chapter after dinner yesterday but forgot what it was about.
Teacher: Are you sure? From my admin screen here, I see that you did not access your digital textbook at all last night!”
I do believe that digital texts will dominate U.S. schools so that within a decade fewer hard-copy texts will weigh down student backpacks. Surely, unanticipated pedagogical, technical, and curricular issues will arise as E-texts become widespread but don’t hold your breath about a revolution in teaching and learning occurring.