Almost as old as the classroom itself, the textbook has provided a means through which one teacher can deliver a standardized set of content to an entire room full of students. When it was created, it enabled teachers to focus more on a student’s grasp of the content, rather than the content itself. It was an innovative solution for the problems that arose when education transitioned from a teacher to student ratio of 1:1, closer to 20:1 or more students to teachers. In the present day, content delivery in the classroom has reached another watershed moment. In justifying the Obama Administration’s commitment to going completely digital within 5 years, American Secretary of Education Anne Duncan, poses this question, “Do we want kids walking around with 50-pound backpacks and every book in those backpacks costing 50, 60, 70 dollars and many of them being out of date? Or, do we want students walking around with a mobile device that has much more content than was even imaginable a couple years ago and can be constantly updated? I think it’s a very simple choice.” As technology brings the classroom into the future, it is poised to put the nail in the coffin for the traditional textbook publishing industry.
Both highly expensive and cumbersome, textbooks have significant drawbacks. Since the eighties, the cost of textbooks has risen at more than double the rate of inflation with a total rise of 186% in just twenty years. Textbook manufacturers entice educators and students alike to continue to purchase virtually the same books year after year by annually publishing new editions with minor changes. Nicole Allen, a textbook advocate with group that started the ‘Textbook Rebellion’, explains that “a handful of powerful textbook publishers have monopolized the industry and driven up costs four times the rate of inflation.” In 2006 alone, public schools in the U.S. spent just under 4.5 billion on textbooks. While the textbook versus technology question is a central feature of modern public policy debates, it is also a conflict that is playing out across university campuses across the world. A new study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that 7 out of 10 students surveyed across 13 college campuses had skipped the purchase of a required text because the cost was too high. On top of high costs, textbooks are large, heavy, subject to deterioration, and environmentally questionable.
Across the globe educators are all simultaneously arriving at the same conclusion – textbooks are dead and technology is the way of the future. E-readers like the wildly successful Kindle and tablet computers enable educators to deliver a massive amount of content for a fraction of the cost. While the initial cost of introducing these types of readers to students may be high, this cost is far outweighed in the long run. First, technology provides a platform for content delivery that is at the same time more portable, more readily accessible (thanks to cloud technology), and easily updatable. No longer does a text have to be thrown away entirely to make improvements to the content. Furthermore, “children can get more from the ‘magic’ of using smartphones and tablets, than simply reading a book,” because the platform prompts student motivation by engaging students in what they are learning. In explaining his commitment to replacing textbooks with ebooks, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger notes that it is “ nonsensical and expensive to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form” espacially since “kids are feeling as comfortable with their electronic devices as I was with my pencils and crayons.”. The government of South Korea has committed to phasing out textbooks completely by the year 2015. This trend spells trouble for the textbook industry, and they will surely lobby to keep textbooks a part of the classroom forever. However, educators the world over have realized that in order to forge ahead into the future, the time has come to abandon the textbook and embrace technology.