Textbooks are dead. Or Should Be.

April 28, 2015 jkatzman

I know it’s a bold statement but just for a minute here, humor me and think about a world without physical textbooks, where teachers assign, distribute, receive assignments and grade on a tablet computer. Where students can receive and complete assignments, and follow their grades on their tablet. Learning on a tablet means no paper, no heavy backpacks, instantaneous feedback, financial savings and the ability for customization to each student.

And that is exactly what Jeff Katzman, CLO at Xyleme, is proposing; replacing textbooks and gradebooks with tablets for both students and teachers. The idea is called People’s Publishing and it was presented at the Ignite Keynote at DevLearn 2011 in November.

First things first; getting in Jeff’s head.


“I have a daughter in 7th grade and a son in 4th grade. My kids amaze and inspire me. They are so bright and hip, and using technology is a given in their lives.

Mobile devices, and social media are second nature to my kids, but when I send them off to school, I collect their gadgets because they are prohibited, then I hunt around for their photocopied home work assignments, load them down with textbooks, and walk them to the bus stop.

I am struck by how deeply technology is integrated into our lives, but yet my kids’ classroom isn’t all that different from my own when I was a kid. Yes, there are computers in the classroom, but the technology hasn’t really been integrated into the culture of learning. Our kids are there, but the schools aren’t….And in dealing with my kids’ homework, I see how slow the assessment cycle is. By the time the teachers hands out the assignment, the kids do it, turn it in and it’s graded, a week can go by.” – Jeff Katzman at DevLearn 2011

Where we are now

Jeff isn’t the only one talking about this revelation.  On the Move Systems Corp., an emerging mobile applications developer, announced in November of 2011 that they are planning new educational apps designed for children as schools begin trading textbooks in for iPads.

“For the next generation of students, the backpack could be obsolete,” said OMVS CEO Patrick Brown. “Tablet computers like the iPad are replacing textbooks and changing the way children learn inside the classroom and out.”

Adopting technology into the current culture of learning has many benefits. Some of the most notable include going paperless, a quicker assignment cycle and long-term financial savings. Think about doing 5 assessments in the time it takes to do one, as well as the ability to instantaneously adapt depending on each students specific needs.

There are many arguments to getting rid of textbooks, the biggest one being cost. However, while state budgets are becoming tighter, the price of textbooks increases annually. According to the Digital Textbook Run Down put out by the Association of American Publishers, the K-12 textbook market reached $6.4 billion in 2007 and the average lifespan of a K-12 textbook is 2-3 years. And, if as much as one paragraph in the text is wrong, a new edition could be required, according to the AAP. (Note, there is no cost to update incorrect text in digital books.) Now let’s examine this statistic. One student can use one tablet device to read books for all 4 years of high school – costs anywhere from $100 to $600. Furthermore, the content downloaded to these devices is free or cost a small expense. Compare that to digital books, where there’s no cost to update incorrect text.

College students are the most effected by cost of any student group, averaging around $900 a year on textbooks, according to a 2010 study by Nicole Allen. Furthermore, new editions of most books are produced about every three years and as any college student knows, each student is required to purchase the updated version. Compare that to the idea that if books were digitally published, production expenses could be reduced by approximately 55.6 percent (National Association of College Stores).

Not all students learn at the same capability, yet textbooks are produced for mass consumption. There needs to be more choices in the material teachers present.  They are grading mostly by hand, taking up a lot of time. There needs to be a more efficient way. Lastly, as we all know, each student is far from the same. We need to better support those that do not fit the mold.

The solution

Learning on tablets and teaching material based and housed in the cloud.

First, an example of cloud learning and teaching in action.

“Suppose I’m a teacher and I assign a math drill. As soon as the assignment is done, I know where my kids stand. Jenny aced it, so I go to the cloud and find a more challenging assignment. Jimmy didn’t do as well, so I find an easier drill. What took several days now can happen in moments” explains Jeff.

The key to People’s Publishing is the teachers, and that any teacher with great content can be a publisher. You no longer have to be a publishing powerhouse to share your innovations. The reality behind this is that the content will be monetized so that each time a piece of content is used, the teacher who created it receives a royalty. For example, if Mr. Jones makes a great physics lab, he publishes it to the cloud, another teacher downloads it, and Mr. Jones receives a royalty.

Maybe the best aspect of the whole plan is that because of the social society we live in, the content will constantly be rated and peer reviewed, forcing the content to continuously improve. The better the content, the more peers will choose to use it, the more royalties the publisher will make. Of course, this begs the question of who is paying for the use of content. Students are the ones using content and therefore, the ones that have to pay for it, but they don’t necessarily have income. By proxy, the responsibility falls to the parent for homeschooled or private school students. In some charter schools, teachers may have a student budget for materials, and in Public schools, the district will be the buyer.

Tablets are more accessible now than ever, and can integrate technology into the culture of learning. We can empower teachers with a cloud of content from which they can create individualized learning. And we can create a self-sustaining cloud using economic incentives.

You can watch Jeff’s full presentation of People’s Publishing from DevLearn 2011 below.

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