Commentary / Japan

Digital textbooks are accompanied by caveats

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

“No more lessons, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” With the end of the school year fast approaching, that old student refrain takes on new meaning as traditional textbooks seem on their way out. Both Japan and the United States serve as cases in point.

Recognizing that paper textbooks are an anachronism for today’s students, an education ministry panel wants to promote the use of digital textbooks. They would be used strictly as a supplement in most subjects at first, with the option to make them the primary textbook over time.

Presently, Japan’s elementary, junior high and high schools are required by law to adopt only those textbooks that have passed a government screening process. Therefore, the law will have to be amended to include digital textbooks, which have even greater potential to inculcate knowledge in students and shape their attitudes.

But there is another concern that is given short shrift. Not all students in Japan have access to a computer, a Kindle electronic reader device or a smartphone. As a result, digital textbooks could widen the achievement gap between rich and poor if their rollout is not handled properly.

The U.S. is a step ahead of Japan in this regard. Since 2009, some public schools in Arizona have replaced printed textbooks with digital textbooks. The shift is based on the acknowledgement that young people are wired differently than their elders. Since birth, they’ve been surrounded by digital devices and feel completely comfortable with them.

But the move has not been limited to public schools. In 2013, Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, N.Y., became one of the first high schools in the country to eliminate all printed textbooks and replace them with their digital counterparts. Because it was a parochial school, it was able to avoid the politics that so often characterizes public schools attempting to initiate new policies.

Even when there is consensus in public schools, however, the decision to provide all students with digital devices has not always gone smoothly. In October 2014, John Deasy, former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest, resigned in the wake of a scandal involving his more than $1 billion plan to use bond money to equip every student with an iPad loaded with curriculum. The problem was that the curriculum hadn’t been completed and campuses hadn’t been updated with the necessary Wi-Fi.

There are some lessons here for Japan as it contemplates the adoption of digital textbooks. Rather than move aggressively to toss out all printed textbooks in one fell swoop, it’s better to start on a small scale. Certain subjects are also better candidates than others. Most important, standards have to be maintained. It’s too easy to get caught up in the excitement of digitalization at the expense of content. It’s easy to forget that the medium is not the message.

Whatever policies are finally adopted in Japan and the U.S., it’s only a matter of time before the days of students lugging around backpacks filled with heavy textbooks are over. Knowledge is changing far too rapidly to rely on traditional publishers to keep students current. Only sentimentalists will mourn the passing of the old era. Whether teachers’ dirty looks will also be a relic of the past is altogether another story.

Walt Gardner taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years and was a lecturer on education at UCLA.

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