Editorial: A new chapter in e-books

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You can imagine our shock when we heard that some students have damaged and misplaced the tablets involved in the e-book initiative undertaken by the Board of Education (BOE).  A press release from the Education Ministry explained that some students have damaged and misplaced the tablets since the two-week distribution began in Mid-March. Further, officials have highlighted the “lack of care and protection” of the electronic tablets issued to secondary students across the island.
Okay, we admit it, we jest when we say that we experienced any shock related to this story.  As a matter of fact, this is the kind of story that is really presented just for the record rather than containing any real news.  To say that the lack of care and protection of the electronic tablets is ‘news’ is like saying that the existence of potholes in Antigua & Barbuda is news.  Yes, it makes the paper and the news broadcast but more as information than news.
We are not going to take a ‘we told you so stance’ on this one because it really will not help the situation but we are going to ask, again, for particulars about the e-book programme from the Minister of Education, Michael Browne, and those in the ministry that are in charge of the programme.  Our questions on this topic have been met with deafening silence before and this is extremely worrying.
Back in the days of the United Progressive Party (UPP), the country rolled out a tablet programme under the then Minister of Telecommunications, Science, and Technology, Dr Edmond Mansoor.  The e-Education Computer Tablets and e-Education connectivity initiative was part of the Government Assisted Technology Endeavour (GATE) and received wide acclaim in the region.  It was a public sector/private sector partnership that envisioned a comprehensive e-Education platform, as far as we were told.
The programme was apparently so impressive that it won the Connect the Caribbean Project of the Year Award at the annual
meeting of the Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Organisations (CANTO) in 2012, and a team from the St Vincent Ministry of Education visited the island in early 2013 to gather information on the initiative with a view of replicating it.  Say what you want, the accolades for the programme were not all self-praise, so there must have been something of substance there.
After much debate and a fair share of controversy, the first batch of students received their tablet devices in January 2013. In a high-powered ceremony attended by the then prime minister, Baldwin Spencer and the private partner representatives from Digicel, including Digicel’s founder Denis O’Brien, ten fifth-form students of the Antigua Girl’s High School (AGHS) were presented with their Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 at a handing-over ceremony at the school.
The issue of table abuse was tackled by the then Acting Minister of Education, Winston Williams, who said that abuse, theft and loss were taken into consideration but the administration’s view was that the positives outweigh the negatives.  At the time, we were told that the government was securing insurance at a reasonable cost for those seeking protection from the various risks.
What happened to that programme?  Well, the government changed in 2014 and it was essentially scrapped.  Only to be replaced at short notice with an e-book programme; which was criticised as being a watered-down version of the original.  Without details, it would be unfair of us to make any assessment, but we would like to state for the record that we would love to undertake the project, so feel free to send us the details of both projects so that we can start.  We are sure that the people would love to know how their tax dollars are being spent and how they were spent.
Back to present day … the ministry said that it had anticipated that some e-books would need repair and replacement and so provisions were put in place to provide students with working e-books before the September school term begins.  It also said that parents are to accompany students and can expect to pay for lost or damaged devices.
Call us crazy, as we await our theory to be disproven, but we think that the percentage of parents that will show up to pay for lost or damaged devices will be slim (and closer to none!). What happens then?  Will kids have no e-books to attend class?
This brings us full circle to a few other burning questions.  The first: why was the original tablet initiative abandoned?  Secondly, is there no comprehensive plan for the maintenance of the tablet ‘fleet’ to limit the risks and costs associated with loss and damages? Is there a follow-up assessment of the programme’s success to date?  And finally, for now, because we cannot list all of our questions: of the 6,499 devices reported to have been distributed, what are the statistics related to loss, theft and damage?
Overall, we must ask: when all factors have been considered, are we saving money (as expected)?  Or are the taxpayers being forced to support another ill-conceived and poorly executed plan?
We await the answers.
We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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