Should our school children switch to e-textbooks?

JANUARY 25 — Have you seen the amount of school books that kids (from as young as Standard 1) are required to bring to school? We're talking pre-Covid-19 times, of course.

Some of the kids looked like they were hauling luggage for a two-month trip to wherever. For years, there has been speculation on what this is doing to the backs of 8- and 9-year olds. Can using e-textbooks stop this?

There are other reasons for replacing these physical textbooks with their e-versions of course.

We live in a digital age, something made starkly more obvious during a lockdown. Since classes are already non-physical, why must textbooks continue to be so?

Marketing guru Seth Godin proposed that schools should produce PDF versions of textbooks, send these to kids and update them as and when necessary.

Also, with the explosion of video lessons, interactive learning websites, educational games, etc. this becomes more user friendly.

Tech guru Kevin Kelly even talked about the screening phenomenon in which the future will consist of accessing information, images and messages from wherever (phone, office walls, traffic junctions, etc.), after which they can do mash-ups, share their work, etc.

So, are physical textbooks really the best we can do? Shouldn’t the education sector be preparing for when the "book" is no longer delimited by physical binders, where information flows (from producer to producer) rather than remain static? Isn’t the preference for physical textbooks (as opposed to e-textbooks) analogous to being stuck in an era of Encyclopædia Britannica (as opposed to Wikipedia)?

Finally, wastage is a serious issue. Year after year, new copies (as in thousands and thousands of them) of the same books are printed then chucked away after the final exam. It would appear the only beneficiary of that are the book-sellers; the rest of society picks up the cost of this externality.

And all because we refuse to make e-textbooks a social given?

Alas, there’s the rub: Can everybody use e-books?

What about the kids who don’t have a PC (let alone two or three iPads) in their house? Even if, miraculously, 100 per cent of Malaysian school kids had cheap access to online educational materials, wouldn’t this be unfair to many of those who haven’t had years and years of experience with e-learning, apps, etc.? Not every school is a "smart" school; some barely have regular electricity.

Well, maybe then schools can be given an option of going with either e-texts or physical texts, depending on their particular situation. Unfortunately, this runs into the "minority" problem because inevitably, even in urban schools, there will be a group of pupils who for some reason can't afford adequate quality computers or Web access or both.

In my experience teaching a university course which is 100 per cent online with no physical textbooks whatsoever, about 10-15 per cent of my students are frequently lagging or logged out of Zoom. These students are also, unfortunately, also the ones who perform the worst. I don’t think their lack of good devices or Internet access is negligible.

To the extent that differences in Web connection strength mirror differences in e-textbook availability, this will be a real issue if schools do away with physical textbooks. In this sense, therefore, the continued requirement of the latter is a democratic “levelling” factor to ensure, ironically, that no student is left behind.

There are also objections to e-textbooks from the perspective of eye fatigue, e-distractions (!) in class, the joy of holding a physical book, whether or not our school textbooks are available in e-form at all, etc.

In conclusion, while there’s no denying the value of e-textbooks, there’s also no denying the problems that come along should they be mandatory across the board. So perhaps the best way to move forward is to slowly provide students with as many options as possible.

Recalling an earlier point, maybe some schools can mandate it while providing students with poor Web connection the choice of going with physical textbooks (which, hopefully, can be subsidised or passed down from previous students).

Whatever the case, I reckon it’s imperative that every learner prepare himself or herself (as much as possible) to transition to paperless education. Even if your Web connection is slow, try to do whatever you can to become familiar with e-reading, e-materials and e-learning as a whole.

On this, I suspect, most of us would agree?

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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