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Books Will Soon be Obsolete in the Public Schools

I suppose it’s too soon to pen another post on digital textbooks in schools after the one I wrote last night, but a fascinating story came across my browser window today.

In the history of education, technology has often been hyped as the solution to all out problems. Right now it’s digital textbooks, but this phenomenon has occurred in the past with whatever technology was new at the time, including TV, computers, the iPad, and what have you.

Today I learned that the technological panacea idea goes even further back than I thought. It was 99 years ago, when tech behind movies were just beginning to be worked out, that Thomas Edison, the man credited with the invention of moving pictures, predicted that movies would replace textbooks by 1923. The following excerpt is from an interview that the inventor gave in 1913 (source):

“What is your estimation of the future educational value of pictures?” I asked.

“Books,” declared the inventor with decision, “will soon be obsolete in the public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.

“We have been working for some time on the school pictures. We have been studying and reproducing the life of the fly, mosquito, silk weaving moth, brown moth, gypsy moth, butterflies, scale and various other insects, as well as chemical chrystallization. It proves conclusively the worth of motion pictures in chemistry, physics and other branches of study, making the scientific truths, difficult to understand from text books, plain and clear to children.

We can see in retrospect that he went a little wild in his predictions, but he was also right, to a limited degree. We really should keep both the wild prediction and the core of truth in mind when the topic of digital textbooks is raised.

Right now there’s far more hype to the value of digital textbooks than substance, and there are strong signs that students prefer paper. As I look at the tech available now, it seems that we are in the exact same place that Edison and cinema were in in 1913.

I’m not saying that digital textbooks are useless; we just don’t know yet if they will live up to the hype.

Consider for a moment the current use of education films; I think this might give an idea of how digital textbooks will turn out.  While virtually all schools use films to teach some topics, they are at best ancillary to the primary instruction method of the teacher at the front of the classroom.

That could be the future of digital textbooks, but at this point it is too early to tell.

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Peter May 8, 2012 um 4:40 pm

Bullets made armor obsolete, not shields.

Jim T. May 8, 2012 um 7:28 pm

You are wise to realize that new technology doesn’t usually replace old technology, but often merely supplements it. Why some people have an either/or mentality rather than a both/and perspective is beyond me.

Luiz May 8, 2012 um 8:27 pm

Thomas L. Russell has been for many years collecting studies where different "new" technologies fail to show a measurable improvement in schools/universities:

Edson and film are there along with TV, computers and many would be revolutions. Of course not everyone agrees with him – see :

Nate Hoffelder May 8, 2012 um 8:42 pm

Ooooh! Thank you!

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