Could e-readers save our schools?
Investing in e-readers could be a forward-thinking way to solve the logistical problems associated with school textbooks.
The distribution of textbooks at the beginning of each year in South Africa is fraught with problems. Complex tender processes, curriculum renewal and the intractable problems of theft and fraud bog down our school textbook industry. It is not unusual for three or four pupils to have to share one book.

The e-reader solution

Consider the following scenario:
Every school child receives a dedicated e-reader with exclusive registration and pin numbers, programmed to download electronic texts for the entire school curriculum.

Educational authorities worldwide are recognising the challenges and opportunities that e-technology poses as they prepare the next generation for the information age.

In the USA, Britain, Holland, Israel, Ghana, Bangladesh, Taiwan and China educationists are seriously exploring the possibility of switching to digital textbooks.
Administrative and logistical advantages

  • The logistics of ordering, storing, handing out books at the beginning of the academic year and collecting books at the end of the school year, can be eliminated.
  • The logistics of delivering and storing truckloads of books to far-flung towns can be entirely eliminated.
  • The endemic corruption that is part and parcel of the textbook procurement and distribution process could be eliminated.

Financial implications

What are the cost implications of switching to e-readers? The national budget for textbooks for 2011 was R4.4 billion, with an extra R500 million for workbooks.

The price of e-readers is already tumbling as sales volumes increase. At this stage the basic Kindle e-reader retails for approximately R1000. Kindle is already under pressure to cut its selling price to $10! (Currently a senior maths or science textbook costs anything from R200 upwards.)

Educational benefits
  • Every child would have all the required learning materials on day one of the academic year.
  • Curriculum materials could be revised and updated annually and downloaded at the press of a button.
  • Students will be able to edit the material in front of them. Extra notes and comments could be inserted.
  • Standardised tests could be downloaded and submitted to the teacher for electronic assessment, providing instant feedback.
  • Marking and assessment time could be cut by at least 50%.
  • E-readers would allow students to read way beyond the syllabus. An e-reader can store up to 2500 titles.
  • Using e-readers would facilitate replies to teachers’ queries regarding curriculum issues, and assist with reducing admin.
  • E-readers would allow authorities to monitor the performance levels of teachers without time-consuming visits to individual schools.

Concerns and answers

  • Children will spend their time on porn sites and playing computer games. Devices can be programmed to exclude such sites and not all e-readers have browser capabilities.
  • Do we have the necessary technical skills? There is ample know-how available in our IT companies.
  • Publishers may argue that some highly skilled people (editors, publishers, artists, book designers) will lose their jobs. Personnel will still be required to plan, edit, illustrate and design e-books.
  • E-readers can be easily stolen. Specifically dedicated and programmed e-readers would have no commercial value.
  • E-readers would break, leaving learners without resources. The fragility of e-readers needs to be addressed at the design level.
  • Maintenance work on e-readers? Such a service should evolve once e-readers are in common use. Students should contribute towards any repair work.
  • There would be a limited battery life. E-readers run up to a week on an hour-long charge. One solar panel should provide enough power to charge dozens of e-readers.
  • Texts might be accidentally deleted. Lost texts can be replaced by simply requesting a new download from the administrative desk. Downloading materials would be possible via cellphone satellite signals.

About the writer: Michael Rice has spent over 40 years trying to make a difference to South Africa's educational system as a teacher, writer, publisher, Special Advisor to the Minister of Education and consultant.

Would you like to see e-readers widely used in schools?

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