Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The heavy cost of education texts

I recall the comments that circulated around my home and office the day we heard that California had passed a law setting a maximum weight for school textbooks. There was a great deal of debate on the issue that finally settled on 2 points as the real crux of the debate. First, the amount of homework being required for students absolutely demands that the kids bring home their textbooks on a daily basis and, therefore, makes the backpacks weigh as much as 16-20 pounds in books alone. When you figure that the average 1st or 2nd grade kid weighs in at between 40 and 50 pounds, that comes to a backpack weighing about 50% of the kid's body weight. I weigh in at just over 200 pounds. I assure you, I'd object to lugging a 100 pound pack to and from work daily. Especially riding a bus.

The second point was that the information imparted to kids at school should not be doled out with a "per pound" restriction on how much there is. Some topics are complicated and that takes space to explain. When you're talking printed books, space = page count = weight. Topics should not be "dumbed down" to fit into a book that can be only so-and-so heavy.

Excellent points, both. I certainly don't want to see my kid straining with a pack on her back that's half as heavy as she is. I also don't want her history book to be reduced to "See Dick run". However, as a professional network/computer geek, I've always considered the current levels of technology to be capable of offering a solution that handles both problems. And now, in Arizona, it seems there's a school district preparing to take the steps down this path.

::::::::A high school in Vail will become the state's first all-wireless, all-laptop public school this fall. The 350 students at the school will not have traditional textbooks. Instead, they will use electronic and online articles as part of more traditional teacher lesson plans.

Vail Unified School District's decision to go with an all-electronic school is rare, experts say. Often, cost, insecurity, ignorance and institutional constraints prevent schools from making the leap away from paper.

In short, they're issuing laptops to the kids instead of books. The "texts" will be a collection of articles (implied as both on-line and stored on the laptop) that serve as the written material for the courses. The article mentions that the solution isn't cheap - it will cost about $850 each for the laptops. They compare this to a cost of $500-$600 for a year's texts. That's intended to be a display of how expensive this approach is, but I think it's a more powerful argument to go this route than others. With paper texts you must incur the cost of a complete re-outfit to upgrade the information. So that's $500-$600 per student every year you do that. Once the laptops are purchased, changing the available text is a matter of downloading the right files. No biggie. And it matters not how large the amount of text is. The weight being carried by the student is a matter of 4-8 pounds worth of laptop, period. Whether there's 6 "books" or 10 or 12 or 20, it's not going to weigh more.

Everyone who uses a laptop knows what argument follows on the heels of that kind of comment. "Hey, it costs a lot more to maintain a laptop than a textbook." Very true - assuming I'm talking about your average Windows-based laptop with the full brace of capability. Tell me, however, why does a laptop that is basically a replacement for a book need a floppy drive? Or, if you're using networking to acquire the text for download or remote access, why does it need a CD/DVD? I would argue that it doesn't need USB ports, either, or external video ports, serial ports, or any other such thing. If you're truly going the "electronic book" route, you don't need a keyboard, either, simply controls for thumbing forward and backward, placing bookmarks and jumping to the table of contents and index. Those last suggestions require a more mission-specific machine, however, so a laptop is probably the best solution. You can, however, remove the floppy and CD drives. Those are items containing moving parts that don't need to be there, saving cost, maintenance, power requirement, and (incidently) weight.

There's a lot of design items that need to be addressed to make this kind of solution as secure as you can make it, in addition to so workably intuitive that it can truly take over for printed books. But we need to start somewhere and I think this kind of initiative is a good set of first steps.