An American Editor

February 22, 2010

Can eBooks Save American Education?

On February 14, in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article titled “How Christian Were the Founders?”, the question of what control people with personal agendas have over what elementary and secondary school students are taught. The article reminded me of a book I read several years ago, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn by Diane Ravitch (2004), which addressed the same issue.

What bothers me most about what is happening before the Texas State Board of Education, which is the focus of both the article and the book, is that whatever decisions the TSBE make will affect the education not only of Texas students, but of students in 46 other states. I don’t care if Texas wants to dumb-down its student population, but it bothers me that it wants to drag down the rest country along with it.

The problem, yet again, lies with book publishers. Because Texas has a centralized textbook purchasing procedure, it has clout in the textbook market, and publishers kowtow to its demands. Understandably from a financial perspective, publishers don’t want to be excluded from Texas’ $22 billion dollar expenditure on textbooks (some 48 million textbooks each year), but from an ethical/moral perspective, the publishers are contributing to America’s decline in exchange for the almighty dollar.

In past years the problem was nearly insolvable. But now things have changed — or they should be changing — and ebook textbooks can be the answer. With today’s technology, there is no reason why publishers can’t create a pick-and-choose menu for school districts. Instead of printing millions of textbooks and locking knowledge in shackles for the next 10 years (the lifespan of the Texas review decisions), publishers could both reduce textbook costs and allow each state and/or school district to create custom books for local courses.

If Texas and Kansas want to teach that the world is flat, while New York and California want to teach that the world is round, customized textbooks would let them do so. In the expansion of fact over fiction, ebooks can play a role in saving America from total educational collapse.

And think about how much money local school districts could save. It should be less expensive for schools to provide ebooks as course textbooks; in fact, it probably would be cost-effective for several school districts in a state to band together to build their own etextbooks than what is currently being spent on printed books that are not as focused on local needs.

The shame of the publishing industry is that it focuses intensely on profit, with lackadaisical attention paid to insuring that American students are truly well equipped to meet future challenges. Declines in academic scores illustrate the problems that publishers, by permitting themselves to be suborned by agenda-driven groups, are perpetuating and making worse. Publishers should exercise an ethical judgment and refuse to continue down that path.

eTextbooks will make it easy to break the stranglehold pressure groups exert over the textbook market. the questions are: Will textbook publishers go the etextbook route or stick with print? Will schools adopt etextbooks?

Actually, if I were younger I think I would consider entering the etextbook creation market. This is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to break the grip of the major coursebook publishers. And California seems intent on helping with its open source textbook plan. If more states followed California’s example and moved to open source etextbooks, we might see a smartening up rather than a dumbing down of students because there would be no reason why etextbooks couldn’t be customized not only for the local school district, but for the individual classroom or even the individual student.

Perhaps the future of education isn’t as bleak as it appears today. Perhaps the future will include enhanced, customized instruction that enables each student in a classroom to learn at his or her own pace and depth. But most important, perhaps the etextbook world of the future will prevent a whole nation from succumbing to the agenda of a few who would reverse the course of knowledge, taking us back to a medieval time. Certainly, as Macmillan is demonstrating with its DynamicBooks at the college level, the technology is available; now there only needs to be the will.

6 Comments »

  1. […] and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor blog. PB Digg us. Slashdot us. Facebook us. Twitter us. Share the […]

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    Pingback by Can ebooks save American education? | TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home — February 22, 2010 @ 2:07 pm | Reply

  2. Yes, customized etextbooks would allow disparate theories and beliefs to be taught side-by-side. I’m not certain that’s a good thing, though.

    Now will it be a good thing (and yes, this is a prediction) when the incoming administration after some bitterly fought election decides to rewrite the history of that election. Nor will it be a good thing when all of the news stories about the big fire last week disappear because the person accused of arson has deep pockets. Now will it be a good thing when every reader of every novel is an editor for the readers who come after.

    Some things should never be reduced to wikis, and education, history, news, science, etc are among those things.

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    Comment by levimontgomery — February 22, 2010 @ 2:14 pm | Reply

    • My fear is that as Texas continues to move further rightward religiously, the Texas Board will demand that high school textbooks only contain their beliefs and be bereft of knowledge (i.e., the difference between fiction and fact). If it only affected Texas students, as much as I would regret their poor education, I would say it is OK for them to live in 1196. But as Texas dictates, so goes much of America’s textbook learning and unlike some people who believe in [insert name of State here] first, I’m an American first and want America to continue to grow and prosper, which won’t occur if either right or left extreme prevails.

      Consequently, I am willing to have etextbooks that can be modified. I believe that most Americans distinguish between belief and knowledge and do not want their children ridiculed for a poor faith-based, not fact-based education. Of course, only time will tell.

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      Comment by americaneditor — February 22, 2010 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

  3. “Now will it be…” being, of course, caveman-fingers for “Nor will, etc.”

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    Comment by levimontgomery — February 22, 2010 @ 2:15 pm | Reply

  4. […] Thought-provoking post about the place etextbooks could have in American education. […]

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    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: In which I shock all of you by doing linkity on a different day of the week than I usually do — February 24, 2010 @ 8:02 am | Reply

  5. Here in egypt we are trying to adapt students in schools and universities to work with ebooks, but we still need to increase the society awareness, also the new devices as iPad and entourage eDGe are decreasing the technology barrier

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    Comment by Kareem Bannona — May 28, 2010 @ 4:27 pm | Reply


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