Take a deep breath because we are going to wade into the murky waters of e-textbooks, but before we do, we want to let it be known that we support the concept of e-textbooks. It is an inevitable evolution, and to a certain degree, a necessary one. Having said that, we also support a well-researched and orderly transition from printed textbooks to electronic media, so that we can ensure that our children derive the greatest benefit.
It is not enough to promise and say that you are going to eliminate paper textbooks and then just do it. We know that the concept of “getting things done” is appealing to many, but there are so many issues that need to be addressed when it comes to such a seismic change. And it could be that many of the issues have been addressed, but simply have not been communicated, and that is a problem all on its own.
First and foremost are the health issues which support both sides of the argument. In many cases, the weight of students’ schoolbags is beyond what is considered healthy by international standards. (We invite you to Google the topic to see the many studies and papers on the harmful effects of carrying a heavy schoolbag). On the flip side, there is increased risk of eye damage from looking at electronics over extended periods of time. We already know that kids spend too much time in front of the TV, and on a host of electronic devices, this will add to that eyestrain.
It should be obvious that the health issues alone should be enough cause to do a careful study of the available research on this matter, consult with health professionals and cautiously balance the pros and the cons.
Education is an area that we consider to be critical to the success of any country. If you do not get education right, there is no chance of ever becoming an economic powerhouse. We live in an information age where knowledge is power and basic logic will tell you that you obtain knowledge though education.
We are no experts in this area. However, there are some issues that require little more than some common sense, and which are evident. For example, it is said that the Board of Education spent $65 million on textbooks over the past 22 years, equating to almost $3 million per year. How does that compare to the cost of acquiring, maintaining and replacing electronic devices that will be placed in the gentle hands of students?
The Government’s Chief of Staff, Lionel ‘Max’ Hurst, is on record saying that the cost of switching to this system will save the government millions of dollars in shipping, storage, distribution, wear and tear and other kinds of deterioration that is common to textbooks. However, there are similar costs associated with electronic devices. And, while some costs may indeed be lower, certainly, in the ‘wear and tear’ category, we dare say that the costs may be significantly higher.
Then there are the logistical issues. Electronic devices are fragile and need power. Students are known to drop a book or two. The difference is that when you drop an electronic device like a tablet, the possibility of a total write-off is high. Who is responsible for the device? The parents? The government? And what about the whole issue of power? If a student comes to school with a dead tablet, how will they function? What if power was off at their home the night before and they were unable to charge the device, or simply forgot? What happens? No textbooks for the day? Will there be facilities for the students to charge their devices at their desks in each of their classes?
We readily admit that there is a possibility that all of these issues and more have been identified and adequate remedies are in place to address them, but we have not been informed. In fact, we know little of the details surrounding this plan.
When the Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) took control of the administration, one of the first casualties was the tablet initiative for students and teachers introduced by the UPP. A couple of years later, we are back to looking at re-introducing tablets (or a similar device) into the education system. Is there anything from that former programme that can be transferred to this one?
Then there is the issue of content. We have been told by the chief of staff that the government is working with FortunaPix, an Indian company that apparently had studied the Caribbean Examination Council System and the classroom textbooks, to write the textbooks in an e-format. Now we are told that local teachers are in the process of producing additional content, as well as vetting what the Indian firm has already written. In a reaction, Richard Lewis, author of CaFSET (Antigua) Office Workbook, told Observer media that, “You just don’t write textbooks like that. You put your material together and you send the material off to CXC for vetting.”
That seems logical to us, and maybe that is what the government is doing, but, again, we do not know. The process, as described, is enough to give us an uncomfortable feeling or as Mr Lewis put it, “You run the risk of developing content that’s not in keeping with their [CXC] standards, and when it is time for the students to sit exams, they’ll have inferior material presenting to CXC.”
We have had other education experts give their commentary on the e-textbook situation, but that is for another time. Right now, we are trying to wrap our minds around some of the basic, common sense issues that worry us, and for which we have not been given any comfort level by the government.
If anyone in the government or the Board of Education is listening, please provide more clarity on the situation. Right now it feels like we are rushing this initiative just for the sake of a promise or worse, vanity. Maybe, someone can start by sharing the cost benefit analysis that was done to support this initiative. The old people say, “There is never time to do it right, but always time to do it over”. There is wisdom in those words.