My K-12 Wish List for Apple’s Education Media Event

Paddy Powers,a British bookmaker, is laying odds of 1:6 that Apple will announce a new digital textbook store at the January 19th Educational Event at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. If that’s all that will happen I would be sorely disappointed. Apple can do a lot better than that.

David Winograd's Apple Education Wish List

I previously wrote a blue-sky piece on what could be done to help solve the dysfunctional textbook situation in Higher Education. Since students in Higher Ed are required to buy their own books, it seemed like an easier problem to solve. In K-12 (and I’m just talking about the U.S. in this piece) books are provided by the school district, and that presents a whole new set of problems.

Differences between Higher Ed and K-12 when it comes to Textbooks

K-12 schools don’t have the luxury of requiring new books to be bought and paid for by students each year. Depending upon the coffers devoted to education in each State and school district, the amount of money varies widely from a good deal to next to none.

In discussions with a Queens New York English teacher who retired after nearly thirty years of service, horror stories were rampant. It’s common for history books to be used for a decade or longer with current history not taught. English texts can last nearly forever with students never getting introduced to modern authors. This happens in just about every subject, since it seems that one of the last things that attain budgetary importance are textbooks. 

The Once a Year Mad Scramble

I’ve seen this in Higher Education, but I’m told that it’s the same thing in public schools. Once a year, usually at the end of the year when things are winding down, the school’s fiscal year comes to an end, and departments are told that they have X amount of dollars left in the budget that needs to be spent in the next 48 or so hours. If the money isn’t spent, the department loses it and it reverts to the State. 

This causes a mad panic of teachers and department heads not making the best decision regarding what should be bought since they are under the gun as the clock ticks away. There are better ways to spend money and not many that are worse. 

Student  Responsibility and Getting Blood From a Stone

At least in New York State, a teacher may not require or even request that students buy a book, any book, not even a novel. This would prevent taking advantage of the luck of relevant popular book breaking through and encouraging reading by using it in class.

Two examples that come to mind are Push by Sapphire that became the movie Precious, or The Help, which is relevant not just for being a best seller, but also as a current popular movie. If the school doesn’t own it, and own enough copies (something the library can’t be expected to do), it can’t be taught. There is no textbook money to buy something on the fly no matter how educationally significant it might be. The books the school owns are the books the school owns.

Student Responsibility for Books

Just as the dog ate my homework is an old saw, the same reasons are given for why books aren’t returned to school at the end of the year. Although most books are returned, a good number are lost, stolen, misplaced, or fill in the blank.

What usually happens is that the student is told that they have to pay for the book or they won’t get a diploma at graduation. Although they can go to graduation with everyone else, they are told that they will just be handed a blank sheet of paper and the diploma will be tendered when they make good on the missing book. From what I’ve been told this is a bluff. The kids get the diploma anyway. And if a student drops out early, often the books aren’t seen again. These are not good situations. 

What Apple Can Do About All This

I don’t think for a minute that this is going to happen, but there is way, at least in theory, that Apple can solve a lot of these problems. What I propose has enough holes to drive a fleet of trucks through it, but I believe there is the germ of an idea in what I propose. 

  • Develop a Smaller, Cheaper, Educational iPad

    Maybe don’t even call it an iPad since it will by necessity have to be really stripped down and as Apple well knows, schools are not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
  • Create a Low Per-Student Price for Quantity Bundled iPad and Textbooks

    I’m talking major quantities, perhaps a per 500 or per 1,000 price that will include the device and all the books that a student will need for all subjects. Do this in three groupings. K-6, Middle school and High School. Or if a district puts Middle and High School together in the same building, charge more for it. This evens out the cost of textbooks for schools and simplifies budgeting and purchasing. It takes an unknown quantity and makes it known. This is a major benefit for schools.
  • Create Recourse and Responsibility

    When a student enrolls in a school a parent or responsible guardian, as it stands, fills out some papers. This may be in the school, a library or even a group home, but there is always someone on record as being responsible. The responsible party would need, just as they do for textbooks, to sign something stating that this device will be given to the student who is responsible for it.  

    If lost the school will do it’s best using serialized Find My iPad to recover it (this alone gets rid of a lot of book selling or loss), and if it’s not found this will happen: An annual worth is put on the device which becomes less each year by a percentage eventually becoming zero at graduation.

    At graduation the device becomes the property of the student at no cost. if the device is lost, broken, etc., or cannot be retrieved, the responsible party needs to make restitution which may be in the form of money or community service. Failure to do so will prevent the student from graduating. 
  • Apple’s Responsibility to Update Curricula

    This will be an issue but much less of an issue than with Higher Education since books are not expected to change anywhere as recently as in Higher Ed. What Apple, for a pre-determined number of years per book will be concerned with is keeping the end of the book current. Now some history books don’t even talk about Iran and Iraq. Apple would add chapters, not being required to update anything earlier, to bring the book current.

    The same idea would flow through all subjects. Some subjects don’t need as much updating as others, but the ones that do will be updated. After a predetermined number of years, the books will be either tossed out or rewritten from scratch. But these revisions won’t be nearly as frequent as for Higher Education.
  • What Apple Delivers and Receives

    Each year new incoming students will be a profit center but schools will only be billed in large quantity once by Apple who provide the device and periodically updated curricula. At then end the school tenure, each device will be obsolete and become the property of the student. This should, I would hope, give students a sense of ownership of the device since they know it will be theirs at the end of the road. 

That’s About It

I believe that this would create a seed change both in school budgeting and the relevance and immediacy of curricula. I think it’s possible, and it might be the start of solving one part of our problem with providing current, relevant textbooks in American public education.