EDITORIAL: E-questions continue

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On hearing the appeal from the Ministry of Education to parents to collect over 1,000 E-Book tablets, we have to ask the question: if the students require the tablets to get access to their e-books and they are still at the ministry, how are the students functioning?
Our understanding of this programme is that physical books were being replaced by electronic books, which required students to have tablets to access the content (a.k.a. e-textbooks). We all remember the public discussion on the matter and the general question raised at the time was: How was all of this going to work? Teachers had concerns.
Parents had concerns. Students had concerns. Truth be told, just about everyone with an interest in education had concerns, but we were patted gently on our heads, told that everything was okay and we should not be worried.
That is all in the past because, we have to tell you, the latest news does not convey the level of comfort that we desired, and we are calling on those in authority to give a full accounting regarding the e-book programme.
To bring you up to speed, a recent release issued by the Board of Education (BoE) stated that approximately 1,700 tablets that went through the update process remain unclaimed. Additionally, close to 600 tablets were not returned to the BoE to be updated. We do not know what the update does or how critical it is for accessing the e-books but it is a logical conclusion that not having an e-book tablet probably means not accessing the e-books.
Look, we support the concept of an e-book programme. To do otherwise will be to ignore the tidal wave of technological change in the world, and that would be to the detriment of the entire nation, not just the students. Plus, with our limited resources, it is difficult to argue against any programme that seeks to eliminate the cost associated with purchasing the hard copies of books, not to mention that the elimination of heavy books helps to save the backs of our youth. Have you felt the weight of your children’s bags recently?
So, the concept is good, but as of right now, the management and execution seems to raise more questions than it provides answers. Earlier this year, the Government’s Chief of Staff, Lionel ‘Max’ Hurst, said that the overall aim of the project, coined the Antigua and Barbuda Common Digital Education (ABCDE), was to convert all textbooks, utilised by students within the primary and secondary schools, into e-books. We were told that the government contracted the services of an Indian software company by the name of FortunaPix to deal with the content. With no more details than that, we were led to believe that all was under control.
Today, the questions persist, and new ones are being added to the list. We have seen the BoE pleading with parents and students to comply with the programme rules, and clearly, they are frustrated. What are we doing wrong? E-books are not new. There are a good many education districts/ boards and schools that have deployed programmes such as this, and they are running smoothly. Is there something we can learn from their experiences so that we can shortcut the cultural evolution and acceptance? There is no need to reinvent the wheel if it has already been largely perfected.
While the government can shoulder some of the criticism, a generous amount must be directed at the
beneficiaries of this programme. Why is there a need to extend deadlines three times to allow the return of the tablets to be updated? And even though that has been done, over 600 have not been returned, and over 1,700 remain unclaimed. Combine the two, and they represent over 35 percent of the almost 6,500 e-book tablets circulated since March in phase one. One in three!!!
Are parents that uninterested in their children’s education that they will ignore such a basic need? They may be electronic, but they are still the students’ textbooks. Come on! How much handholding can we expect of government? They provide the tablets. They provide the updates, and parents cannot find the time to either turn them in to be updated or pick them up after they are updated? And, we are over two months into the new school year!
While this is a great idea, someone in authority needs to call a time-out to find out why we are where we are. Start by being fully transparent regarding costs and processes, and let us know the players involved. We can well imagine that this project is costing a good chunk of change, and dipping into our scarce resources, so we cannot allow the current situation to continue. At the same time, there must be accountability, both on the government’s side and the parents’/students’ side. You cannot have the government spending precious taxpayers’ money and a good portion of the recipients of the benefits taking them for granted. It is simply unfair to the taxpayers of this nation.
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