From 30 Pounds to 10.3 Ounces: Tomorrow's Textbooks

Think tank proposes replacing public school textbooks with Kindles.

July 15, 2009, 5:19 PM

July 20, 2009— -- Children across America wake up each weekday and toss on a backpack almost as large as they are, filled with heavy and often outdated textbooks. But a proposal released by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) thinks the load for the students -- and the financial load for school districts -- can be lightened.

The proposal by the Washington think tank, to the delight of, is titled "A Kindle in Every Backback: A Proposal for eTextbooks in American Schools." It details a situation in which 56 million students from kindergarten through high school would receive a Kindle, or similar electronic reading device, instead of traditional textbooks.

"We're looking to spark a conversation to improve the education of our children," said Thomas Freedman, the author of the proposal and ex-senior adviser to the president and special assistant to the president for policy planning during the Clinton administration.

The sentiment is shared by some school administrators. "Discussion like this opens up the door for online media in the classroom," said Themy Sparangis, the chief technology director for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "We've been talking about it for years, but now it's more than just talk."

The idea appeals particularly to Californians, as the state government has recently approved a number of open-source materials for classroom use, which may help cut textbook costs in the fall.

Similar programs have been tried, but most have received mixed reviews. A trial run that gave 250 students Sony eBook readers at Northwest Missouri State University showed little promise. While some students utilized the devices, most preferred to use laptops to access the etexts they were provided, according to a university news release. No such program has been tried on the public school level.

It might be because getting the idea off the ground in public schools would be tough. "It would take a completely different vision of public education," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "There ways to spread out costs, but it would require a different look at infrastructure."

Sparangis supports the introduction of an eBook reader, granted the apropriate research is done to select the best unit. "Some people might look at it like it's just a high-cost book," he said. "But sustainability over time could cut costs."

Freedman admits that the actual device would have to be carefully considered for conditions such as price and durability. The proposed figure, which is based off the standard Kindle 2, doesn't take into account back-up devices if students were to break them.

But incentive could be put in place to prevent problems such as theft. Because new eBook readers are connected to their own wireless networks, the devices could be tracked. "Students won't try to steal or sell them because they'll think, 'Oh my God, I'm gonna get caught,'" Sparangis said.

According to the proposal, the first year of the program's rollout would cost $9 billion. The cost would drop over the next six years and stabilize around $500 million a year, but that doesn't take into account the costs associated with replacement devices and textbook files.

Estimates say traditional textbooks cost the U.S. school system about $6 billion annually, with a per-student cost of $109.

However, according iSuppli's teardown price analysis of the Kindle 2, the device costs about $185 to produce, and that's only for the standard version, which does not have the ability to run textbook-size pages or graphics. That would require the Kindle DX, which has a retail price $190 over that of the standard version.

The proposal was co-authored by Blair Levin, who served with Freedman as a member of the Obama-Biden transition team as part of the Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform Policy Working Group. Levin and Freedman first discussed the plan while helping to craft Obama administration policy. The idea, though not specifically discussed during the transition, was formulated by Levin and fellow group member Tom Wheeler.

Despite the detailed figures and cost breakdown listed in the proposal, Freedman claims that the purpose of the paper is simply to begin a talk on technology in this classroom. "The educational tendency is not to embrace change," said Freedman.

The average publication date of a public school textbook in New York is 1986, according to the New York Library Association.

The Kindle, or other electronic reading devices that may emerge, would provide the ability to quickly and easily update educational materials, a notion new to the publishing industry. "When there's a change, you will have the ability to adopt new material," said the author.

The DLC's proposal hopes to address the issue on a national scale. The proposed program would guarantee that not only students in wealthy districts receive the educational aids. "We want to make sure they help disadvantaged students," said Freedman.

The proposal also suggests a trial run at introducing the devices on a small scale -- 400,000 students at a time -- to judge effectiveness. "We should learn what works," said Freedman.

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