UK Schools Not Ready for Digitisation

Is it worth spending £2.4 billion to equip every primary school pupil in the UK with an iPad? Moving schools from traditional paper textbooks to digital textbooks (referred to as etextbooks from here forward) is a monumental – and expensive – upheaval.

Start Up Costs

A bar graph showing the Education Budget and how it's falling.

Education budget cuts from 2009-2016. Data from ukpublicspending.co.uk, graph created with infogr.am

The first issue with moving to digital is the initial cost of the hardware and who funds it. The Education budget in 2009-2010 gave schools between £3,000 and £8,000 a year per pupil, and the budget is expected to fall in coming years. Taking away 5-13% of a school’s budget per child to buy an iPad is a huge amount – much more than some schools, who are already increasing class sizes to cut spending, can afford. 

Hardware has a short lifespan too, so this initial cost will be repeated every few years. Having children on different generation iPads could create problems – such as a new app only working on the latest version – raising the issue whether to replace all hardware every few years or replace them one by one when they are no longer useable.

Infographic of cost of buying iPads – £400 per iPad, making £2,443,824,000 for the UK.

The cost of buying iPads for UK primary schools. Created using: infogr.am

Running Costs

An iPad on a stack of books – teachers learning how to teach using iPads.

Teachers need to be trained to use iPads to their full potential. Photo by: teach.com

In order to use the iPads at their full potential, teachers need to be trained to use the iPads. There are some tech training companies emerging, such as iTeach, who give lessons to teachers on how to use an iPad in school. They charge £495 for one full day’s course for sixty teachers, so the cost for every primary school teacher to have a day’s training £1,680,129. In reality, this cost would be higher – not every course would be full, and other school staff, such as teaching assistants would need some form of training too. This too would be an ongoing strain on the Education budget – new teachers graduate every year and technology changes, so the training would most likely be needed annually, if not more often.

Relying solely on etextbooks would cause huge disruptions if the service was unavailable.

Moreover, as advanced as technology has become, it is still not perfect. Relying solely on etextbooks would cause huge disruptions if the service was unavailable or the devices needed updating. Schools would need to employ staff to maintain the devices, adding in yet further ongoing cost.

Practicalities of Everyday Use

For etextbooks to replace printed textbooks, there would need to be an easy to use system that is difficult to hack and virtually impossible for pupils to access any inappropriate content. Currently, there is no such platform. There are a number of systems available for etextbooks but none of them are perfect.  CourseSmart allows etextbooks to be rented from their store, but the content is not interactive and reviews from its users are terrible – not user friendly, need to login every time the app is opened and printing out any pages is nigh on impossible. Inkling has better reviews, but is still relatively small scale and has had very little updated in the last two years. They are both, however, multi-platform, meaning they can be used on a variety of devices. This enables pupils to open their book in the library, on a tablet in class or a computer at home. However, these systems don’t have interactive content or user friendly workspaces – there still needs to be a new system created specifically to accommodate schools’ needs.

Photo of iMac and an iPad with iBooks Author on screen.

iBooks Author is another option for creating etextbooks. Photo by: doaneipads.wikispaces.com

Similarly, there is no universal format for etextbooks, and many are still PDFs. Although PDFs are useful in that they look the same when viewed on any hardware and can be created in everyday software, including Microsoft Word, they are rarely interactive and are often almost identical to their paper equivalent. The other commonly used etextbook formats are iBooks Author and epubs. iBooks Author, run by Apple, looks professional and is easy to use, but only allows books to be read on Apple devices. Epubs look better than PDFs, but require some understanding of HTML or XML coding.

There is currently no perfect format for etextbooks.

At the moment there is no perfect format for etextbooks, and it would be difficult to take advice from the main ebook market, which is dominated by MOBI files, run by Amazon’s Kindle store. MOBI files cannot be read on any device other than a Kindle, meaning they cannot viewed on an iPad. As of September 2013, Amazon had a 79% control over the ebook market. Kindles would be less useful to schools than iPads as they are less interactive.

Subscription Models

Etextbook models are usually based on subscription models. These are either a site-wide licence, where anyone from the school can access the content, or are licensed to each device. A site-wide licence would mean that an iPad could continue with a child throughout their schooling, so they could refer back to old work from previous years, whereas a device-based licence would be most economical if iPads remained in the same year group year on year. Site-wide licences are often very expensive, and schools would need to weigh up the cost of physical books compared with the cost of the licence. If a year group with two classes uses the same textbooks but has lessons at different times, then one set of books could be bought rather than two. This would not work for electronic devices as it would get complicated if the student is saving work onto the device, so unlike a physical book, a device would have to be bought for every child.

A child in blue school uniform holding his heavy school bag on his back.

Some children carry a quarter of their body weight in their school bags. Photo from: dailymail.co.uk

Children are carrying up to a quarter of their body weight in their school bags.

However, a subscription model would mean that schools would be able to get any updated books much faster – whenever the curriculum changes its focus, books could be updated rather than replaced, reducing paper waste and recycling cost.

A further benefit of etexbooks for schools is that they would not get damaged. Physical textbooks look tired quickly, with tattered edges and torn pages, and pupils would not have to carry around heavy books, which will damage their growing backs. It is reported that some school children are carrying ‘up to a quarter of their body weight around’ in their bags.

Digital Learning Benefits

Etextbooks could also improve the school experience for children with learning difficulties.

Some, including Sue Polanka, creator of the blog ‘No Shelf Required’, believe that ‘the more involved you are with content, the more likely you are to retain it’. She also points that that when you ‘open something on a tablet, [you] don’t see how thick it [the book] is’, which could encourage pupils to work. Etextbooks have the potential to provide interactive content, meaning that the textbook actually starts to lose both its book and text components. For audio or kinaesthetic learners, learning through playing may be beneficial, but for visual learners, this could hinder progress.

Etextbooks could also improve the school experience for children with learning difficulties. For some dyslexic children, being able to change the background colour of a page could helpful when reading. Children with Aspergers Syndrome and Autism are also likely to learn better doing activities rather than reading.

Too Much Screen Time?

There are reports that large amounts of screen time means children are less able to understand emotions, struggle to sleep and can even cause depression. If the above video is to be believed, it is easy for a child to grow up in a world expecting everything to be digital. If children use digital devices all day at school and when they get home, do they have enough time away from a screen? Then again, is this even a problem at all – the children of today will forever live in a progressively digital world, so why prevent their learning of it from a young age?

Does it Work Elsewhere?

A Korean classroom full of children in blue and white uniform using green and white laptops on their desks.

South Korea hope to have all textbooks digital by 2015. Photo from: wikipedia.org

Other countries have already invested heavily in etextbooks. South Korea, whose education test results rank second in the world, has promised a move to etextbooks by 2015. This might make it seem like a move to etextbooks would be great thing, and we should follow their lead in education, until we consider other factors. Akamai, a worldwide study monitoring two trillion internet interactions, found that South Korea has the world’s fastest internet. They’ve also been named Bloomberg’s most innovative country for technology, with the third highest amount of people working in technology industries – all of this meaning they already have the super fast broadband needed to support technology based classrooms, and the whole population is much more geared to using technology. Some pupils also face over 12 hours of schooling every day, and are pushed significantly harder to achieve academic results. Something is working in South Korea better than in the UK, but it is impossible to know whether it is their use of technology, long school hours or expectation of pupils to succeed.

The potential for more digital content in classrooms in the UK is huge, but until there is a better platform for them to work from, it costs less than £2.4 billion to implement, and more academic publishers get on board with the scheme, there is little or no point providing every primary school pupil with an iPad. Once etextbooks are interactive and easy to use, they could be a fantastic addition to the education system. As Martha Brockenbrough said, ‘it’s not the ‘e’ that makes the book good. It’s what’s in the book.’

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