Standards Opinion

2020: What’s the expiration date on YOUR textbook?

By Tom Segal — February 22, 2013 3 min read
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Guest blog written by Art Bardige, Sustainablearning

Would you buy a K-12 textbook this spring to be used in the year 2020? Would you buy a science or social studies text, subjects that dramatically change every year in a rapidly changing world? Would you buy a math or English paper textbook when the Common Core implementation just now starting will likely keep changing? Twenty years ago a principal or superintendent adopting a new textbook series would have two choices, paper or paper. Today we have an alternative to the “dead-tree” textbook. All of that information, all of those images, all of the questions can easily go onto a bright screen on a handheld device that weighs little and can be easily kept up-to-date. So it is hard to imagine a school system choosing and adopting a new paper textbook that will still be useful in five to seven years.

Just as the nation waits for the fiscal cliff, educational publishers have been waiting for the “paper cliff.” Predictions of the demise of the paper textbook have been rampant as long as I have been working in educational technology, and I am called a pioneer. I am not here to once again threaten Armageddon to those publishers. They have read the tea leaves, they just don’t know how quickly this will happen.

Rather, I want to talk directly to principals and superintendents, for you are the ones facing the real cliff. Publishers who want to cross the divide will have to change their business models, their price points, and their methodologies if they are to survive. Educators have a much more serious and difficult task, for switching from paper to pixels has far-reaching consequences that you must deal with. It is not a matter of simply transferring content from a six-pound stack of paper to a screen. The pages may look similar. The backpacks may be lighter. The text would be fresher and the pictures animated. But this device does not exist in a vacuum. It is connected, fundamentally connected to the cloud, to an internet full of promise and mischief. This reader, whether a pad or an e-book, no matter how hard we may fight against it, is a powerful computer linked to the vast wealth of the internet.

As educators, we have very good reason to be optimistic about the effect of the e-textbook on learning. They are easier to carry, always up-to-date, and less expensive; they are upgradable, customizable, and of course interactive to enable the student personalization and individualization we have longed for. They make it possible to bring the online course revolution in colleges to K-12. We also have very good reason to be wary of them. We have to figure out use policies, protection, professional development, new models of instruction, and testing. We have to solve equity issues, replacement issues, maintenance, charging, type, parent issues, and most of all we must solve the issues of the changing model of education. A new technology in every student’s hands with everything that a connection to the internet enables has to profoundly change what occurs every day and every hour in our schools.

You have no choice! You can no longer justify buying paper textbooks that will still be passed out to your students in the year 2020. The paper cliff is happening now. It is no longer a matter of preparing for it. It is no longer a matter of if or even when. We have long assumed that education changes at glacial speed. Perhaps it usually does. But any educator buying paper textbooks today and expecting them to last until 2020 is in for a profound surprise. Who would have thought that the venerable textbook would cause the education technology revolution? Though it will cause it, the textbook will not survive it.

The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.