Lack of Technology In Action: Why Are We Still Printing Textbooks?

I don’t talk about politics too much, because I’m kind of past that point in my life.

However, I found this story curious: Budget cuts put new textbooks on hold. Students are still using textbooks? Are you kidding me? Dead trees? Information and textbooks that are years old for the students?

I realize that the kids have to have learning material, but in the new education world where Wikipedia has turned into a wonderful reference free of local political pressure like teaching “intelligent design”, and we’re trying to save trees, the environment and tax dollars because of the recession, the idea of printing books just seems like an anchronistic idea.

There are a lot of jobs connected with this industry. However, print is heading the way of a quick, painful death in a lot of other places (read: newspapers), and creative destruction is going to change this industry, forever.

Last year alone the State of California spent $633 million buying textbooks. That escalates every year. That’s a lot of coin on  outdated publications before the students put their hands on them.

Why we should stop printing textbooks

They’re out of date the minute their printed. History doesn’t change radically, but Science does. I’m guessing that most children and teachers use the web as a resource for information more than their textbooks today, and a textbook that doesn’t talk about the historical election of 2008 doesn’t have much use for the students that are studying history today. Reprinting a 500-page history book to include two pages about current events is impractical. Why not go to a format that can be changed as times change?

The carbon footprint is huge. Think about the energy process alone that goes into printing textbooks. Someone has to cut down the tree. Someone has mill the paper. Someone has to run the printing press. And most of that process has nothing to do with getting the information into the hands of children. There’s this whole industry built around charging as much as possible for textbooks, and the books themselves weigh more than a Netbook or Kindle. One of those Netbooks could hold a whole semester of information, without having to carry physical books to do it. This is an idea that has Al Gore written all over it: education and the environment. Why not pioneer it?

The profits go to people other than the authors. Most of the research I did showed that for a $100 textbook, the author will see typically $5 to $15 per book in royalties, where as the publisher will see the rest of the profits. What’s worse about this model from an economic standpoint is that the Wikipedia article points out that there’s no real competition because it is a closed market, and even the instructors themselves can’t get the prices for some of the products. Compare that to a service like CD Baby, which keeps less than 10 percent of gross profits. In that model, the textbook author would keep 60 to 70 percent of the revenue through some kind of national clearinghouse.

We need a tech-saavy group of children, and this is the best way to do it. Every child in California should have a laptop, considering we lead the nation (if not the world) in technology jobs, and a good portion of the workers here are from other countries speaks poorly to our state educational system. Why not work with companies that are based here to put a system in the hands of every child? It’s a wonderful opportunity, and the more they learn about the web, the better off I am as a technology professional (and we all are). And this would lead the way for other states to ween themselves off of providing dead tree books. if the largest market goes away, textbook publishers will rethink their business model, right?

Make technology the responsibility of the parents. Most school districts are so far behind with technology, there’s no way for them to catch up with significant outlays of funds. This would be a great way for the students to catch up without a district like the Los Angeles Unified having to spend billions of dollars to do it.

Here’s a way to fix this

Issue a $300 tax credit every year for each child if a family buys their children a computer. Require a receipt, and they get the tax credit. I bought one of those new Netbooks (A Gateway, and it’s a wonderful machine), and for $400, I got a machine that’s prefect for doing word processing, some presentation work, and most of the software I would need for most school needs is open source or free (Picasa, Open Office, and web browsing software, for example). There’s roughly 8 million school age children in the state of California, and that would be up to a $3.2 billion hit on the state revenues. However, half those children today (at least) have access to a computer at home, so it might take a while for some families, but think about an environment where every child had a computer?

Tax printed textbooks. Heavily. If the companies are interested in correcting this, give them incentives to go all digital, and disincentives to deliver a printed product. Release a PDF with Digital Rights Management, or issue a blanket license for a school district where they issue the books and double the royalty for the author? Give them a tax credit. Release a printed product? Add a 25 percent tax that can’t be recovered through increasing prices.

Take away funding from local districts if they don’t go digital. There are many, many reasons why digital is the way to go, but in a place where technology moves slowly, educators have to be given a shove. As the older teachers retire (and they are doing so at a fast clip), this would be a perfect time to introduce a Brave New World into their environment, don’t you think?

What are your thoughts? Would you vote for something like this?