Textbook terminator: Arnie's war on print

19th June 2009 at 01:00
Film star-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to save California $350 million a year by ridding classrooms of printed material. Could schools in the UK follow his lead and go totally digital? Richard Vaughan reports

- Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1984 hit film Terminator, humankind was on the brink of extinction as robots took over the world. Now Arnie is ushering in an equally apocalyptic prospect - schools completely free of textbooks.

California's "Governator" is charged with correcting a $24.5 billion (Pounds 15bn) budget deficit. Last week, he announced that he intends to scrap school textbooks which, he claimed, cost $350 million last year.

Writing in a local newspaper, Mr Schwarzenegger said: "It's nonsensical and expensive to look to traditional hardbound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form.

"Especially now, when our school districts are strapped for cash and our state budget deficit is forcing further cuts to classrooms, we must do everything we can to untie educators' hands and free up dollars so that schools can do more with fewer resources."

The news was quickly followed by reports in the UK that schools over here will soon be following suit. After all, the dire financial situation facing schools is not exclusive to California.

In April, Alistair Darling, the Chancellor revealed that public expenditure will grow by just 0.7 per cent between 2011 and 2014, meaning a real-term funding drop of around 10 per cent. Schools are likely to experience a 2 to 3 per cent cut.

This means they will have to be ever more frugal in the years to come. But whether the lean times ahead mean schools will take that giant leap and abandon textbooks altogether seems - at first, at least - as far-fetched as one of Arnie's movies. However, one district in Arizona (see panel, right) has already done just that, and many experts in the UK believe it is feasible.

Roger Broadie, a former teacher, is now the business development director at Frogtrade, one of the country's largest online learning platform providers. He believes the days of textbooks are over.

"Certainly, I think it is possible to do it now, although (only) at secondary school level - primary is slightly different," he said.

"Ten per cent of secondaries that are using online learning platforms want to use them for everything and do everything digitally. We believe that 10 per cent is the critical mass that means the rest will be forced to follow. We are seeing that schools are already recognising that others are improving and that they need to keep up."

Mr Broadie said schools would be able to save up to Pounds 6,000 per year on paper with the right ICT systems, and that it is now down to parental pressure to push schools into improving their technology.

He said that Frogtrade is already working with schools where 98 per cent of pupils have access to a computer, but he admitted it would be difficult to carry out the same work at a school where only 25 per cent were connected.

In an attempt to tackle this issue, the Government launched its Home Access programme earlier this year. The Pounds 300m scheme, which is being piloted in two authorities, Oldham and Suffolk, is intended to provide the most deprived families with a home computer.

The initiative is part of the Government's broader plans to turn digital all of its administration and bureaucracy eventually. It has split the population into three groups - those with computers, those without but able to afford one, and those without and unable to afford one. By giving computers to poorer families, it hopes those that can afford a computer but haven't yet got round to it, will put their hands in their pockets.

But Home Access is still only in its nascent stages and a future where all children have access to a computer is still some way off.

Adrian Hall, a former ICT policy decision-maker for the then Department for Education and Skills who now works as a strategic adviser for Magic Studio, a web-based learning network, is enthusiastic about the prospect.

"It is certainly possible to scrap textbooks now, and the benefits are that you would be able to gain access to an enormous bank of resources. And, unlike with textbooks, you can just bring them up to date online," he said.

"It is feasible, but until you have that one-to-one access of pupil to computer it won't be. If we were to go ahead with it today, all we would end up with are the haves and the have nots. Realistically, if you want to ensure that children can learn any time and anywhere, then it will only be possible when the access is there."

But even some schools that have the necessary access to computers will still not entertain the idea of teaching without textbooks. Sacred Heart School in west London has specialist ICT status, but its head Christine Carpenter believes books offer more than a computer screen.

"The experience of reading, holding, studying and just dealing with books is something that is vitally important for everybody," she said. "The fact that you can flit back and forward, flick through the pages is essential to human growth.

"Although textbooks are a different breed of book, they are a resource - and a good teacher should make use of all resources."

Dr Carpenter added: "You need to be critical when it comes to IT resources - Wikipedia cannot always be trusted - but we should just rejoice that we have both."

Becta, the Government's education technology agency, is in very little doubt that the need for both books and computers is essential. The organisation is overseeing the Home Access programme, but it says schools would be failing their pupils if they were to ditch the textbook.

Tony Richardson, Becta's executive director for strategy and communications, believes schools should be equipping pupils to use both from a young age.

"Young people have to be digitally literate. That's why IT was so prominent in the Rose review," he said. "It is vitally important that kids can do research online but have the sophistication and be discerning enough to check a source's validity, be it in a book or on another site.

"We also need to be careful about what we say about books and reading. Reading a book is a very different experience to reading online. It is, in general, a much more pleasurable experience."

He added: "But it is possible to employ both well. Just look at how newspapers do it: The Guardian and The Times are among the biggest websites, but they also have a successful print copy."

But Mr Richardson sounded a note of caution to schools looking to follow Mr Schwarzenegger in saying "Hasta la vista, textbooks" purely to balance the books.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger is facing huge budget deficits, and that is the sole reason for him introducing these changes - not necessarily because California is ready to," he said. "If we were to follow suit, we would be doing our children a great disservice."


In Vail school district, which covers part of Tucson, Arizona, the high school seniors who graduated last month were the first to begin and end their school careers without the use of any textbooks.

Four years ago, the district, equivalent to a local authority in the UK, made a radical decision to abolish textbooks and give all its students MacBook laptops instead.

Rather than spending hundreds of dollars for individual students on textbooks that constantly need updating because of the "ever-changing world of state standards", Vail opted to put the money towards laptops.

It was hoped that by using only digital resources, it would better prepare students for life outside school, providing them with "more marketable" skills.

One senior described his high school career as a "one-of-a-kind" experience, enabling him to learn from "so many different sources", which has now put him "ahead of the curve" compared with his peers.

Cindy Lee is principal of Empire High School in Tucson, which was one of the first to switch to computers. She said the technology helped to provide a "more relevant curriculum while preparing students for the central role technology likely will play in their lives after graduation".

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