Democratic Leadership Council / Policy Report / July 15, 2009
A Kindle in Every Backpack: A Proposal for eTextbooks in American Schools
By Thomas Z. Freedman
Amid the important and often heated debate over education reforms such as merit-based teacher pay and charter schools, the nation is missing an obvious opportunity to use new technology to improve dramatically the education our children receive. The new thinking should start with the heavy, often outdated textbooks students carry in their backpacks and read at school or home. We shouldn't wait a decade or two to begin to achieve what is inevitable -- an education system where each American schoolchild has an eTextbook, like Amazon's Kindle, loaded with the most up-to-date and interactive teaching materials and texts available. The "Kindle in every backpack" concept isn't just an educational gimmick -- it could improve education quality and save money.
This policy paper suggests we consider an innovative plan to spread eTextbooks around the country, rapidly scaling up employment of the technology so that we can learn, adapt, and perfect its use quickly. It describes the case for an eTextbook system in three parts. In Part One, it discusses the multiple reasons why eTextbooks are a much better approach for our nations students. The reasons they are superior include the ability to update eBooks relatively cheaply and easily, environmental and health benefits (such as reducing loads on young backs and shoulders), and the enormous opportunity to make texts more exciting and interactive -- like the other tools children use today and that compete for their attention. In Part Two, this paper discusses the economics of this approach. Cost estimates in the education world are notoriously sketchy and often self-serving, but it seems clear that over time an investment in these tools would produce big savings. Finally, in Part Three, this paper outlines how we could implement such a plan, and why there could be broad-based support for it.
As with any innovation, there are missteps to avoid in this process and there is much to learn, especially from professional educators. This proposal is just a concept, an idea to be refined and improved with more dialogue and input. It suggests, however, the time is now for an urgent conversation on bringing this new technology to the support of our schools and students so American education can once again lead the world.
Thomas Z. Freedman, a senior fellow at the new Democratic Leadership Council, is also president of Freedman Consulting, LLC. He served in the Clinton Administration as Senior Advisor to the President, and prior to that as Special Assistant to the President for policy planning. He also served as a member of the 2008 presidential Obama-Biden Transition Project on the Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform Policy Working Group.
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