Education reform: Let's start by burning all the textbooks

President Obama wants to simultaneously improve education while getting costs under control. School districts are so stressed financially that they're laying off teachers and ending valuable programs. Here's one modest proposal from the tech blogosphere: Get rid of paper textbooks in favor of digital books and materials for high school and college students as a way to both improve education and cut costs.

Paper textbooks are problematic in two ways: First, they're paper. Second, they're textbooks. Let me explain.

What's wrong with paper?

All the standard arguments against paper books are especially true for textbooks. Paper requires the cutting down of trees, transport of trees, paper, then books and the use of toxic inks. Paper books are bad for the environment. But textbooks are constantly being replaced with new editions, with the old ones rendered unusable, and can't be sold used or even stocked in a library. Because teachers require new editions, the old editions are useless and end up in landfills.

Meanwhile, the strongest argument most people use in favor of paper books, which is that they enjoy the pleasure of curling up with a "real" book, is hard to swallow with textbooks. They're generally not read for pleasure, but in late-night cram sessions.

Also: Books are heavy. Have you seen students' backpacks these days? They tend to be back-breakingly heavy.

What's wrong with textbooks?

Textbooks can cost a fortune. A typical textbook that might cost $24.99 at Barnes & Noble might be sold to schools or directly to students in college bookstores for $200. Schools and teachers often require the most recent versions, which have been updated with minor changes, thus forcing schools and students to pay for books rather than reusing older ones. 

The high cost has little to do with the cost of production, and everything to do with monopoly pricing. Many textbooks are required by someone -- a school board, and state board of education, a teacher, professor or department head. Once it's required, you've got a monopoly pricing opportunity. Students *have* to buy the book regardless of price.

But the worst thing about textbooks is that they've evolved into bland, unreadable products of interest group politics. Schools are trying to teach students to be literate, and to develop an ear for good language, then we force-feed them these hideous textbooks, which tend to be so stripped of blood and guts and heart (one definition of bad writing) that reading and learning become some kind of forced march through the educational-industrial complex, rather than the journey of discovery they're supposed to be.

In a better world, teachers would choose reading materials from the millions of available online titles. If they chose a textbook, fine. But instead of some bland, committee-approved, unreadable textbook about Plato, why not have the students actually read Plato? It's both superior and free.

Of course, electronic books wouldn't stop controversy. But it could push the controversy down to the local level. Rather than tiny minorities of religious people, politically sensitive people or other groups forcing blandness and stupidity on an entire state, only the local school districts should be having these battles in the places where those interest groups exist. Elsewhere, schools could be free to assign real books.

It's worth pointing out, by the way, that pushing decision-making down to the level of the individual is precisely why, say, capitalism works better than centrally planned economies, and why, for example, more people get more value out of the Wikipedia than the Encyclopedia Britanica. Maybe school curricula should also take a cue from Hayek, and push the decision-making down to the individual instructor? Electronic materials would make that extremely workable.

Why electronic is better

Students are already online and electronic. They're mobile and digital. An electronic book can be read in more places. For example, if a college student works part time on some manual labor job, he or she can listen to their books and get more studying in than would be possible with paper books. They can read on their iPhones on the bus, or read in hundreds of other situations where they wouldn't have their giant, bulky textbook.

The text size can be increased, which helps visually impaired students.

Electronic editions could be updated at nearly zero cost. They could be subscribed to by schools, saving taxpayer money. That way, a college teacher wouldn't have to require the bookstore to stock the new version and dump all the used books. The electronic version would always be updated.

And here's a radical idea. Why not ban books altogether for some courses. Why not place the burden of finding sources on the student. Isn't it better to teach them to fish, rather than giving them one? (The best students do that anyway, supplementing assigned materials with those they find on their own.)

Rather than banning the use of Wikipedia, as some schools do, why not require contribution to it? 

Some of the best universities in the world place complete course materials, including video podcasts of lectures, online. What possible reason would some podunk college have to not take advantage of course material from, say, MIT, whenever possible (other than instructor ego)? There's a whole new universe of educational content resources -- most of it free -- that has emerged in the past few years. Why are schools still pretending that the Internet never happened?

So that's my proposal: Ban all paper textbooks and go electronic. Students could choose to read on PCs, phones or Kindle-like readers. If students don't have some kind of reader, libraries and computer labs do.

And once schools go electronic, let's stop torturing students with textbooks, and introduce them to the real world of intellectual content out there.

Embracing real books online can help solve the education crisis, the financial crisis and a large number of other crises.

A global recession and educational funding crisis makes the perfect time to wrench our children's minds away from the textbook industry, the politically correct anti-intellectuals, special interest groups and the bureaucratic mindset that is wrecking education.

Let's burn the textbooks and go electronic. 

To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
7 Wi-Fi vulnerabilities beyond weak passwords
Shop Tech Products at Amazon