Thursday, July 14, 2011

The E-Book Revolution Continues

The Economist recently reported that South Korean schools plan to ditch all paper-and-ink textbooks by 2015 and switch to an entirely electronic format.

The cost of setting up the network will be $2.1 billion. It is hoped that cutting out printing costs will go some way towards compensating for this expenditure. Environmentalists will of course be pleased, regardless. A cloud network will be set up to host digital copies of all existing textbooks, and to give students the (possibly unwelcome) ability to access materials at any time, via iPads, smartphones, netbooks, and even Stone-Age PCs. Kids will need to come up with a new range of excuses for not doing their homework: the family dog cannot be blamed for eating a computer, nor can a file hosted on a cloud network be left behind on a bus.

The education ministry also plans to use the network to offer online classes for children who are too ill to attend school. Given this country’s utter obsession with education—driven by parents’ fear that their children will “fall behind” unless morning, noon and night are spent studying—it is perhaps not surprising that even the ability to pull an occasional sickie is now being cut out.

While I don't see the United States moving in the direction on a national level any time soon, I can imagine some well-resourced school districts taking a closer look at the idea and watching the Korean experiment very carefully.

I do wonder how these e-texts will be priced. Texts in dynamic fields like biology and history need constant updating, which would justify as a somewhat higher price. Calculus, on the other hand, hasn't changed much since Isaac Newton invented it some four centuries ago and I'm hard-pressed to see how publishers can justify the constant production of new editions beyond trying to squeeze already-indebted young people for their precious few dollars.

Either way, I will be following this story with great interest. And I suspect I won't be the only one.