Ah, education! One of our favourite topics. One of our most vexing but favourite, nonetheless. Just over two years ago, we praised the government for the planned rollout of the e-textbooks initiative. We had and continue to have lots of questions but the initiative warranted our support, and we gladly gave it.
At the time, the government’s Chief of Staff, Lionel “Max” Hurst, disclosed that the government would be introducing the first phase of an electronic textbook system within the next school year. (Remember we are talking about Feb. 2016 when he said that.) There were lots of good reasons to launch the initiative; chief among them was the desire to eliminate the costs associated with purchasing the hard copies, along with the associated distribution and storage costs. Add to that the introduction of smart devices into the curriculum and the lessening of the physical load on our schoolchildren and it becomes easy to throw your support behind the e-textbook initiative. Heck! The programme even had a cool acronym – ABCDE, or Antigua & Barbuda Common Digital Education.
So, where are we today? Well, according to the President of the Antigua and Barbuda Union of Teachers (A&BUT), Ashworth Azille, the government’s e-textbook plan is at great risk of becoming a “colossal failure” if immediate changes are not made to the content that is given to teachers and students. He further stated that only one in every five students is using the devices because of varying issues. That is only 20 percent! Over one year into the planned three-year rollout and the programme is shrinking rather than growing.
Azille said that there was a rush to make the plan a reality and Ministry of Education officials failed to heed warnings that a comprehensive plan was necessary before implementing any policy. From his assessment, less than 90 percent of students on the island are actually taking the devices to school. It may not be a colossal failure yet, but it sure is sounding like it could turn out to be a colossal waste of money.
As far as content goes, we remember openly asking about that very topic. At the time of the government’s announcement, Hurst said that the government would utilise the services of FortunaPix, a specialised software company from India. The company would “essentially rewrite the textbooks in an e-format, to include short videos and animated movies that make learning easier and fun.” That struck us as odd because textbooks are protected by copyright, and we wondered how we could simply rewrite someone else’s work and make it part of our education syllabus. The response from Hurst was, “To avoid copyright infringement charges, the experts within their group would have to re-write the texts, although they could just as easily work with the current writers to improve on the text being used.”
Now it appears that content is one of the major problems with the e-textbook programme. Azille has describe it as “woefully inadequate” for the job and said that the teachers still cannot determine if the e-books are truly ready to be commissioned. That is not all. The frustration is apparently compounded by the fact that, in the rush to roll out the electronic devices, the government failed to order enough hard copy textbooks, which has led to a shortage of material to deliver the curriculum.
One of the key rules in transitional project management is to “always have a fall back position.” Where possible, project managers never put all or most of their eggs in the new basket. In fact, when transitioning technology, they try their best to run both systems in parallel. This is all part of the overall risk management when moving from one technology to another. It would appear that the rule was overlooked or ignored.
Among the multitude of questions, we now must ask, who is responsible for this project? Will there be any consequences for those who insufficiently planned, or will this just be another shrug of the shoulders and maybe even a promotion for those falsely lauded for doing such a great job? When we wrote about the e-textbook initiative, we commented that the devil is in the details. We were not geniuses to make that comment, but the reality has certainly come home to bite us hard. With the union president saying that teachers are no longer willing to be part of a failed experiment and no longer willing to subject students to the said failed experiment, we wonder about the future of this project now that all this time and money have been spent.