The 2013 NYC mayoral race is getting off to a brisk start this month and it looks like education will be a hot topic. One mayoral hopeful, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, recently outlined her $300 million education agenda that she planned to implement as mayor.
As part of a sweeping set of reforms which would include extending the school day, introducing more intensive literacy programs, and even a new deputy mayor position, Speaker Quinn proposed to replace textbooks with tablets.
No, this actually isn't another "textbooks are the future so let's discard the past" type of story. Quinn looks to have a good grasp on the value of OER (open educational resources). "So a teacher in the Bronx can pull together the most relevant information for his class, and update it throughout the year to stay current," Quinn explained. "He can incorporate videos and interactive multimedia assignments that better engage kids living in a digital world. By using tablets instead of textbooks, the possibilities really are limitless."
Unlike the education plans proposed by some of Quinn's competition for the Democratic Party nomination, the funding for all these changes would not come from new taxes or diverted revenue but from existing funds spent by the NYC Dept of Education. For example, the tablets could be funded by diverting current textbook funds and either replacing expensive textbooks with free and readily available OER-licensed textbooks.
Update: An early comment reminded me that I should have pointed out that school districts can write their own textbooks and save hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's also possible for a single teacher to customize a textbook for their class or even for a school district to forgo textbooks entirely (here). And then there are the digital textbook repositories that a number of states have started (California, for one).
"We currently spend more than a hundred million dollars a year on textbooks," said Quinn. "That's enough money to buy tablets for every student in New York City public schools, and cover staff costs to make sure these online texts are meeting rigorous standards".
This proposal wouldn't be implemented until after the November elections and given the political influence of the major textbook publishers (and, for that matter, the teacher's unions), it might not be implemented before the 2014-2015 school year.
Just to give you an idea of the scale of this proposal, the New York City DOE has 1.1 million students in over 1,700 schools. It is by far the largest school district in the US. With an annual budget of $24 billion, this organization has almost as much revenue as the government of Luxembourg.
If Quinn follows through on this tablet proposal then this will be the single largest one-to-one program anywhere. In order to find a larger program you would have to look at the national level education plans of some third world countries. Thailand, for example, is working to distribute 5 million tablets to elementary school students.
This program would even dwarf most national programs. OLPC, for example, boasts about having distributed 2.4 million XO laptops (map), but the single largest program to use the XO is the not entirely successful program in Peru. That country has purchased approximately 860 thousand XO laptops.
I have high hopes that this program will succeed. From what I can tell there is every indication that the tablets are being proposed here not because of hype but because they are a stepping stone. The goal is to enable teachers to use the latest and best quality educational materials.
Nevertheless, there are some major hurdles which will have to be faced. The NYC DOE will need to expand and adapt their IT dept so it can support a million tablets. And when you have that many device sin use, if even a small fraction are broken at any one then you're looking at a minimum of tens of thousands of repair jobs. In fact, the OLPC project in Uruguay reported an average uptime in 2011 of around 70%, meaning 30% of their XO laptops were nonfunctional at any one time.
Other issues include connectivity and security. If the kids don't get to take their tablets home then the effective value of the hardware investment will be reduced. But when the tablets go home they are at greater risk of being lost and stolen. And as the recent experiences of the Fairfax County Schools District has shown us, students will also have some difficulty in accessing online content from home.
But none of these problems are insurmountable, and given the potential gain I think nuisances are minor.
image by flickingerbrad