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Tablets to Replace Textbooks in New York Public Schools?

6660065911_c7db40d8da[1]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.

source, source

image by flickingerbrad

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I checked it out January 27, 2013 um 7:02 pm

Beware of this proposal–in my district, we tried but were told that ebook were much more expensive since a text book could be used by students for a few years (we all remember the sign in sheet on the book’s inside cover), but ebooks can only be used once and must be bought new every year. This could be quite an expensive proposal for taxpayers…

Nate Hoffelder January 27, 2013 um 7:15 pm

That is only true if you get the textbook from the current textbook publishers. You don’t actually have to do that:

Caren May 19, 2014 um 12:02 pm

Discovery education has a $45, 6 year digital textbook- so I am under the impression- as time passes more will be available in similar types of packages- everyone wants on the band wagon- we’ve been held captive by textbook publishers too long!

Kaz Augustin January 27, 2013 um 7:40 pm

Just curious. If your article is about "OPEN educational resources" and "FREE…textbooks" and the only brand mentioned is the "XO laptop" (that runs Linux), why are you showing a stack of Apples? Apple doesn’t believe in open-source, isn’t free and, furthermore, has a locked-down ecosystem.

Are you being lazy or is this yet another instance of Apple propaganda?

Nate Hoffelder January 27, 2013 um 7:56 pm

Lazy? I just wanted to show a stack of tablets. This was the only CC-licensed image I could find on Flickr that worked well with the story (but perhaps I didn’t look hard enough).

And I don’t see what’s wrong with using that image; iPads are used in the classroom and for all we know that’s what will be used in NYC as well.

Nate Hoffelder January 27, 2013 um 8:13 pm

Okay, I went looking for more photos relating to tablets in schools. It’s really easy to find photos showing iPads but almost impossible to find other tablets. In fact, I found a better photo than the one I had before.

When all I can find are iPad related images, it’s not my fault if I use one.

Kaz Augustin January 27, 2013 um 10:54 pm

See, that wasn’t so hard now, was it?

Nate Hoffelder January 27, 2013 um 11:04 pm

I didn’t get the kind of image I wanted. And the kids are clearly using an iPad. So I’m not sure that anything has improved.

Mike Cane January 27, 2013 um 9:17 pm

>>>This proposal wouldn’t be implemented until after the November elections

*snort* You forgot the "election" bit. Stop thinking it’ll happen — even *if* she’s elected, which is slim.

Nate Hoffelder January 27, 2013 um 9:39 pm

Probably not. But I like the idea and I thought it was one worth copying by other school districts.

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