What's the Eco-Impact of California's Plan to Ditch School Textbooks for eBooks?

textbooks photo

Photo by bgottsab via Flickr CC
Governor Schwarzenegger has announced plans for California high schools to start ditching textbooks in favor of digital media, starting with math and science books this August. The claim is that with so much information available in digital format, why waste precious little budget money on textbooks that just get outdated and tossed? There's a point, but is the switch nearly as green?Do Digital Textbooks Beat Killing Trees?
Not when they're read on a computer. We've weighed the pros and cons of paper versus online reading for news, and found that while the impacts fall in different areas, if you're reading online for more than 30 minutes, you might as well grab the paper. We can figure that kids will be accessing their textbooks for longer than 30 minutes a day. Not only does this impact how much schools will have to spend on electricity, but also possibly how much families spend.

California says it spends between $75 and $100 per book for new texts. But what will the cost be for running enough computers all day long for kids to access the ebooks?

The idea of putting textbooks on e-readers is already being taken up, and it looks to be an excellent idea, but there's no word on e-readers when it comes to this digital switch.

Beyond that, there's the question of how kids will access the textbooks both in classrooms that are short on computers, and at home.

students at computers photo

Photo via xaxa29
Risk of Broadening the Digital Divide
When it comes to being energy efficient, e-readers rock it compared to computers. However, there are no real details yet about ensuring there will be additional computers in the classroom for students, let alone getting them e-readers.

Access to textbooks will now depend on access to at least one of the two. How will this impact students of schools in poorer areas, and students who don't have computers at home or have to share one with several siblings?

From the Sacramento Bee:

Carl Fahle, program manager of instruction and technology in the San Juan Unified School District, said schools might be able to print chapters of digital books or buy iPods or Kindles for students to access them.

"Those devices are coming down in price enough that they are affordable," Fahle said.

So essentially, schools would be spending money on more computers, and/or e-readers for kids - as much or more as a text book - which would likely have to stay in the classroom rather than go home with the kids just to minimize the risk of it breaking, or print out chapters anyway which defeats the paper-saving purpose. Not quite a money savings, yet.

How About the Question of e-Waste?
Schwarzenegger pointed out very briefly other benefits besides cost, including not cutting down as many trees. But that doesn't mean there won't be an environmental consequence to the switch. As we mentioned, it'll take a lot of electricity and additional electronics to get kids access to these materials, and we can pretty well bet most won't have access to e-readers for the first year(s?) of the new roll-out if budgets are such an issue.

But e-readers are undoubtedly going to be part of this scheme at some point in the near future. How will schools take care of the likely millions of e-readers that get broken every year once they do start using them? We're curious to know more about their forward thinking in this area.

In addition to that, what is the ecological impact of manufacturers rushing to produce enough cheap e-readers to put one in every student's hand, especially when that model of e-reader is going to be put to shame the next year by a new model sporting new technology, which is rapidly being advanced right now?

Textbooks will be pretty amazing in a few years when e-paper technology is so improved that displays allow for color and video. But for now, it's just black and white. How dull for kids...and how definite that anything put in their hands now will be obsolete in a very short amount of time.

Switching to digital textbooks will free up funds for other spending priorities. Last year, the state's share alone for school books and other instructional materials was $350 million, this is funding that can be used elsewhere after free, digital textbooks are made available.

The textbooks themselves might be free (the plan is for development of open-source texts), but it isn't free to access and use them. Not for schools or for the environment.

Digital Text Books Are Inevitable, But Err on the Side of Caution
The switch is inevitable, but we're hoping the impact of energy use and e-waste are being carefully noted as states move forward with new technology.

From the Guardian

Kristina Fierro, a high school teacher in Bakersfield, said it would be expensive to get the materials, train the teachers and train the students to use the materials properly. She was also worried about the students once they are out of the classroom.

"I would say out of a class of 30, maybe 10 or less ... have a computer at home. The governor hasn't given many details about the programme, but so far the digital addition isn't looking like a subtraction for California's budget," she told KGET, a local TV station.

More on e-Readers and Digital Books
Could the Next Textbook Upgrade be a Kindle?
Soaring e-Paper Market Means It's Time to be Careful

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