Why Technology Will Not Save Money In Education

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times has been making the rounds of Jewish educational "cyberspace", Who really benefits from putting high-tech gadgets in classrooms?. The main thesis of this piece is that the hype by government spokespeople and Apple about digital textbooks and the like is much more about selling iPads and other Apple products than it is about sound education.

One of the most often repeated claims about the benefits of educational technology that this article challenges is the premise that integrating technology in education will achieve a substantial cost savings. The key quote (I believe) is by Thomas Reeves, an educational technology expert at University of Georgia:

There are two big lies the educational technology industry tells... One, you can replace the teacher. Two, you'll save money in the process. Neither is borne out.

This issue is especially poignant in the field of Jewish education where technology integration is often viewed as the solution for the tuition crisis. My friend, Rabbi Aaron Ross in an excellent recent blog posting calls into question this assertion. I will elaborate on one area addressed in the Los Angeles Times article and touched upon by Rabbi Ross that has been of tremendous recent interest to me, the iPad and digital textbooks.

As I have written, digital textbooks on the iPad or other similar e-readers can be a great boon for education in that they can contain much richer interactive content than any traditional textbook. (Although this is not yet the case as Jeffrey Thomas points out in his scathing critique of the first generation of digital textbooks using the iBooks platform.) They can also solve the age old problem of portability with children transporting back and forth from school to home one 1.3 pound device instead of a knapsack full of books weighing dozens of pounds. However, after some simple analysis, I do NOT believe using the iPad for digital textbooks will achieve any cost savings. Rather, it will raise the textbook cost by upwards of $500 per student.

Let me explain. The iPad costs approximately $500 and textbooks from iBooks are currently priced at $14.99 each. Let's assume for this projection that Apple will lower it's textbook price at some point in the near future to $10 each. I think it is fair to assume that Apple will NEVER charge less than $10 for a digital textbook and that the iPad will NEVER be cheaper than $500 considering how Apple has succeeded in keeping it's prices standard over the years.

Now, the average paper high school textbook costs $80. Some cost a little less, many cost more but that is the average. It sounds like the iBooks would be a great deal at $15. But here is the catch. The iBook is sold to the STUDENT while paper textbooks are purchased by the SCHOOL and lent to the student for the duration of the school year. What this means is that a school will have to pay $10 every single year to supply students with digital textbooks for the iPad. This is in addition to the $500 cost for the iPad.

Now let's do the math. If the average paper textbook lasts 8 years, in reality many textbooks are used for twice that time, then within eight years the cost of the iBook is the same as the cost of the paper textbook NOT INCLUDING the $500 for the iPad. In reality, the digital textbooks then become at least $500 more per student for his/her four years in high school than the paper ones. That is a substantial sum of money.

Now you might argue that replacing digital textbooks each year allows a school to always stay current and you would be right. It is pathetic when a student is studying from a history textbook that is 15 years old in which Bill Clinton is still the president. However, in science this time span is less significant and in math it is certainly possible that the 15 year old book is a much better textbook since nothing substantial has changed in high school mathematics in the last 15 years.

Anyways, your argument would be besides the point since my assertion is not that paper textbooks are necessarily better. There are many reasons why the digital books could be vastly superior as stated earlier. My argument is that digital textbooks, as with most educational technologies, are not cheaper. The only way to save money utilizing technology in education is to fire teachers, as Aaron Ross points out in his posting, and a world where our teachers start being replaced by computers is a very scary slippery slope which I am not ready to climb.

Mind you, I am very excited about the potential for iPads to transform education. The fact that iPads are on in less than 15 seconds as opposed to the average laptop that can take 2-5 minutes for start up and log on is a VAST improvement in the classroom where students often learn in 40 minute periods. The ability using iPads to take pictures and video, edit that multi-media content and combine it with text and other web-based resources, and present the finished product is much more than any laptop can do and the easy portability of iPads is a great asset as well. Even the promise of digital textbooks with interactive content is something I am greatly looking forward to.

However, I get very scared when the focus of technology becomes about the device and how it will save us money whether it be iPads, Smart Boards, digital textbooks, or online learning. Educational technology as with all educational innovations can never focus on the device. It has to focus on meeting our curricular and educational goals. Sometimes technology can better achieve these goals, other times it cannot. But don't be fooled by the salesperson or government spokesperson who says that iPads (SmartBoards, online learning, or any other tech flavor of the month) are the panacea for education or the solution to the tuition crisis. It's not about the gadget, it's how we use it.