Textbooks versus Technology: The Right Debate?

Here’s a Texas-sized story about an ongoing debate in the Lone Star state over textbooks and technology. It is a K-12 story but it is all about a major question we at UMassOnline face all the time: what is the best allocation of funds for technology; what is the right balance of new and traditional?

In Texas, some say way too much is being spent on an outdated form of information conveyance—the textbook. Others argue technology spending is risky due to fears of rapid obsolescence. I say that the hardened positions of people on both sides of the issue have left everyone debating the wrong question. It should not be an either/or conversation. It should be a dialogue about how a combination of two information sources – computers and books – can together transcend the value of either when both are used in appropriate ways.

“Appropriate,” of course, is the hard part, which may explain why people would often rather argue over all or nothing propositions. And, in fairness to Texas and educators everywhere, knowing how and when to combine the traditional with the technological isn’t easy, nor is it always intuitive.

One statistic in the news story did suggest to me a starting place for thinking and talking about technological balance:

On about 57 percent of the K-12 campuses, there are four students per computer…

I’m fairly certain of the answer you would get if you asked average college students if they wouldn’t mind sharing their computers with three others. Of course, a simple response might merely be that college level study implies a higher level need for technological access. Perhaps. But if we’re preparing school children today for college tomorrow, improved access to technology now seems like an appropriate thing to do.  To boot, ever since my own kids were in elementary school, the sight of young children bent over by the weight of 20 pounds of textbooks in their backpacks seemed inhumane to me.  Notebook computers or ebook readers could address this problem and do so in a manner that is environmentally conscious.  Traditional textbooks will be with us for many years to come, but it’s time to see technology redraw the balance.  Kindles, anyone?

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