The American education system should be benefiting enormously from the e-book revolution, but it isn't. Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the major children's literature and textbook publishers are screwing up.
We hear all the time that the U.S. education system is in need of major reform and that other countries are leaving us in the dust. Education reform is a big subject and can be extremely controversial. But changes in the way children's books are supplied and sold can make a difference, and those changes shouldn't be controversial at all. What is needed is for book publishers and vendors to commit to e-books in a significant way.
As things stand now, hardly any American elementary school students can get electronic copies of their textbooks, and the major electronic bookstores such as Amazon and Apple don't even provide the most basic search functions to find children's books based upon reading level.
As a parent, I see the potential. This past Christmas, millions of American parents gave their children e-readers like iPads, Kindles and Nooks. Being parents, they expected to load them up with electronic copies of textbooks and children's books at the appropriate reading level. But they were disappointed. I was saddened to watch my young son and his friends using those devices for games and other apps instead of reading.
What I found was that none of my children's textbooks were available electronically. I can't fathom why this is so. The potential for profit alone should be enough of a motivator to offer textbooks in electronic form. Many parents will buy their children both hard and soft copies. And I'm not just talking about the affluent parents of private-school kids. I have spoken to many low-income parents who say they would be willing to spend money on e-readers and electronic textbooks and literature if they were available. One e-reader is capable of holding many more books than a child can carry. Have you seen the size of the backpacks that burden schoolchildren around the country these days? A lot of kids are now using book bags on wheels, like luggage. Let's give them a break and let them throw an e-reader in their packs instead.
Aside from textbooks, children's books are available for e-readers, but there is a separate problem with those. Not one of the major online bookstores enables searching by reading level. I contacted Scholastic, the leading publisher of children's books, and a spokesman informed me that the company does provide an app called Storia that can handle reading-level searching for much of its inventory. That's a step in the right direction, but it doesn't help with the main outlets that most people use when looking for e-books.
The leading online bookstores need to offer that functionality as well. In addition, they should work with the major textbook publishers (Addison-Wesley and the other Pearson companies, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) to make the textbooks that these companies publish available as e-books.
While they're at it, all parties should make sure that the e-books produced for schoolchildren have value-added features that will make them more functional. Again, profit is a great motivator; many parents would be willing to pay a premium for an e-book that allowed their children to easily have a word defined or pronounced, and that would be updated to correct errors and reflect changes in the scientific and political realms. No more science books that say there is no water on the moon, nor textbooks in use that still show Czechoslovakia as a single country! Even the next South Sudan could show up on a map as soon as it establishes its independence.
I don't think it's too much to ask for such things in a country as advanced as the U.S. Consider what is happening in South Korea.
According to the Program for International Student Assessment, South Korea is already far ahead of the U.S. in school performance. This gap will widen, in part because South Korean public policy will soon mandate pervasive use of electronic textbooks in public schools. By 2015, every South Korean student will get the most up-to-date textbooks and have access to these texts every day and night, all while saving their schools the cost of having to print, store and distribute print books that can quickly become obsolete. This will be true even in impoverished rural areas, and not just the posh Gangnam district of Seoul.
How do we compare with that? I live in an affluent school district, and none of that is available or even possible. How do you think things are going in less well-to-do districts?
We can learn a lot more from South Korea than how to dance Gangnam Style.
Joe Mohen is a serial entrepreneur who has started multiple Internet companies, including SpiralFrog, which secured groundbreaking licenses for free and legal downloads; ParishPay, which automated the handling of money for Catholic churches; and Proginet, where he helped create XCOM, a systems management product. In March 2000, as CEO of Election.com, he oversaw the world's only major election ever run on the internet, the Arizona Democratic Primary, in which voter turnout went up over 500%.