Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tech Giants Take On Publishers for Control of Education

Collage by Modern School (with Images from Flickr, sucello and mikebaird)
In a rare moment of lucidity and honesty, the Los Angeles Times published a piece last week criticizing tech giants’ play for billions of federal and state K-12 public education tax dollars. Reporting for the Times, Michael Hiltzik attended a Digital Learning Day Town Hall meeting sponsored by Google, Comcast, AT&T, Intel and others, with speakers that included Education Secretary Arne Duncan and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Duncan and Genachowski called for laptops for every child because textbooks will ostensibly soon become a thing of the past. While there are certainly benefits to switching to digital textbooks, like allowing students to “write” in the margins or to interact with multimedia presentations, the real driving force, not surprisingly, is the huge profits to be made by tech giants like Apple, which announced last month that it “dreams of a world in which every pupil reads textbooks on an iPad or a Mac,” according to Hiltzik.

In reality, the medium makes no difference to education outcomes, according to Richard Clark,
from the Center for Cognitive Technology at USC. And with school districts already incapable of retaining teachers and purchasing printed textbooks due to budget cuts, the idea of buying $500 ipads for every child seems outlandish (unless they are donated by Apple in order to get school districts hooked on their software and support services, for which they could collect hefty yearly fees).

This possibility is not just Luddite paranoia, but standard business practice. Consider the desktop publishing app iBooks Author, which allows users to create textbooks. While the software is free to use, products made with iBooks Author can only be sold through Apple's iBookstore, with Apple keeping 30% of the purchase price. And since the books are only readable on an Apple device such as an iPad, the software also helps guarantee more Apple hardware sales.

It is also questionable whether digital books will actually save school districts money. If the laptops or ipads are donated or purchased by parents and the districts only have to pay for subscriptions or site licenses, then maybe they will save money, as digital copies are not subject to ripping, graffiti, water damage or getting lost. However, the notion that ipads are somehow more durable than textbooks is absurd. If students treat their digital hardware as cavalierly as many treat their textbooks, many will destroy all of their “textbooks” simultaneously with a single toss, instead of just one at a time as is currently the case.

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