South Korea recently declared that it intends to fully digitise all school textbooks by 2015.  The announcement has fanned the flames of debate as to whether or not schools will soon leave behind the traditional print versions of books in favour of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

Printed schoolbooks may soon be replaced by digital devices

The notion of a fully digitised school system is nothing new. As mobile devices have been introduced, from laptops to mobile phones, they have found their way into classrooms and impacted how students learn.

The launch of the Amazon Kindle in 2007 was met with expectations that printed books would soon be a thing of the past.  Although e-reader sales have increased since then, print books still remain very popular.  Last year in the UK, e-book downloads of general consumer titles quadrupled to £16 million and academic/professional e-book titles reached £180 million, yet this was only a fraction of the total book sales, which amounted to £3.1 billion.  While e-readers have so far received a lukewarm reception from schools, textbook publishers have begun to think ahead, with major players like McGraw-Hill offering a majority of their titles in an e-book version.

The introduction of tablets, with their ability to incorporate e-books, interactive apps, and access to the Internet, have further fuelled the idea that schools will soon become fully digitised.  Many universities have led the pack, encouraging the use of these devices in the classroom.  For example, Seton Hill University in the US, has implemented a programme to give all their full-time students an iPad to enhance learning. Other institutions have followed suit or held their own studies on how beneficial these tools could be.  It is these devices, rather than e-readers, that South Korea will use to implement their “smart education” system.

Some argue it is only a matter of time before all “developed” countries turn to a full digitisation of schoolbooks. As children grow up in an environment where these devices are part of their daily lives, using them in school will become second nature.  The development of Apps specifically targeted at school use will also encourage these devices to be used as part of a regular lesson plan.  Their interactive nature, vibrant image galleries, and integrated multimedia will add to the learning process and help students gain extra information that a textbook could not offer. Additionally, with costs decreasing and their popularity increasing, tablets and smartphones will become too commonplace to ignore.

Others, however, feel we are still a long way off from fully digitising our schools.  South Korea’s venture will cost  2.2 trillion Won (£1.3 billion), a sum many governments cannot afford in today’s economic climate. While some wealthier schools could raise the funds to convert, others simply do not have money to do so (nor would a majority of their students), leaving cost to be a major determining factor that is not easily overcome.   Another argument suggests that digital devices overlook the physical aspect of learning, like writing to turning pages, thus omitting a stage of learning that the brain needs to process information.  So, even if a digitisation takes place, the learning process would not be as successful and schools would return to their old ways.  An argument is also made that fully digitising schools’ resources places too much reliance on machines that could easily break, especially when in the hands of young children.  This risk could possibly prevent schools from taking the step into fully digitising their textbooks.

Trends indicate that at the least, schools will (and have started to) incorporate digital technology into their lesson plans and as part of a daily routine, allowing their use to enhance education rather than replace its current system. If and how schools become fully digitised in the UK remains to be seen–it’s all part of the learning process.