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The Coming End of Textbooks in Los Angeles, Nairobi and Beyond

Toronto  Colleges and universities increasingly are requiring students to show up for the first day of classes with their own computers or iPads, just like years ago standard equipment might have included a tablet, pens, pencils, and a lunch pail.  Los Angeles Unified School District, the 2nd largest school district in the country after New York City, has announced a $30 million program to supply every student in the district with iPads, with the first 31,000 of their more than 640,000 students scheduled this year.  The district says that this was the cheapest way for them to deliver textbooks, which will be supplied electronically by Pearson, the Canadian publisher.

            In Koroghocho where ACORN Kenya has been successfully organizing a bursary campaign to distribute funds for lower income students to receive money for books and school fees, I read recently with interest about a US-based nonprofit called Read-and-Prosper that is now trying to supply e-books in Nairobi, Kenya on the same model, making it seem likely that the cost of paper-based books compared to electronic copies delivered to simple devices may mean that this is the only economically viable way to put content in the hands of students both the developing world and in the underfunded beleaguered urban school systems in America.   In Kenya Read-and-Prosper is saying that they can get the device for as little as $100 USD, and certainly advertisements for Amazon’s Kindle and other handheld devices would lead me to the conclusion that is likely true and probably could be cheaper.  They make the point that for that $100 they can “deliver a whole library” which is appealing when the number of paper-based books will obviously be limited for that amount of money.

            Whether in Los Angeles or Nairobi, if the books are coming wirelessly that also means that the possibility exists that the additional capacity to connect to the internet also would be available.  The Comcast and other inadequate access programs offer refurbished computers for lower income families, if they get lucky, for $150 per device, but iPads, Kindles, and the like, with internet functionality could open up a whole new world of interactivity and therefore educational access and opportunity for students.   

            As I read the Los Angeles announcement, the opportunities this might present were hidden underneath the excitement from Apple’s PR department on a big sale.   It is easy to get nostalgic about paper-based books and as many books as I read on a Kindle these days, I could still not make the argument that a book isn’t special and perhaps preferable if everything were equal.  Increasingly though it seems everything is never going to be equal, so getting a library to people in America and around the world on an inexpensive and sturdy mechanical device could be a giant step forward for both education and equality.