Garamond and Social Learning: ebooks and digital school for everybody? Yes, but only if...

On February 2nd, 2011, Italian publishing house Garamond left the Association of Italian Editors (AIE) and proposed to abandon the official Italian procedure for adoption of textbooks by schools because:

  • every year Italian families with children in school spend 700 millions Euros (whereas other European countries spend from 25 to 80% less) to buy expensive, heavy textbooks that often are only half used and cannot be resold because every 2/3 years arrives an “updated edition” that becomes THE adopted textbook even if it isn’t really necessary

  • above all, AIE protects the interests of the 3/4 great publishing groups that currently dominate the market and have been sharing among themselves almost 70% of sales for 15 years

  • Garamond doesn’t find any interest anymore in the AIE politics to maintain the status qup, and above all in the substantial resistance from AIE to both the changes introduced by recent regulations from the Ministry of Education in favour of digital textbooks, and to how the students of today have already changed their studying and knowledge acquisition practices

Garamond, instead, thinks that it is time to abandon the very concept of an officially adopting one or more traditional textbooks for every subject that is currently the norm in Italy. Besides principles, Garamond also sees this a step that is simply necessary, if a publisher is to survive in near-term scenarios where “everybody will have e-book readers, iPod and iPad, tablet PC and mobile, always-on Internet connectivity”). In such a world, Garamond says, it is much cheaper and effective to use shared services and open content in e-book or wiki format, with open licenses like those from Creative Commons. Garamond will soon propose this alternative model, in a format called “Social Learning”, to all Italian schools starting this year, that is in the same moment when the new Ministry regulations about digital textbooks will take effect.

Annalisa, an Italian High School teacher, immediately pointed to a weak spot in the model. Here’s my synthesis of her comment:

_yeah, right, this is beautiful and all that, but... how will my students use this "network-based, digital courseware", if half of them has no computer at home, only 8 of the other half also have decent Internet connection and the school only has 36 (old!) computers and 2 Digital Blackboards for 504 students? I have no idea of where you live and what's your income; but I do know that mine is considered an excellent school in one of the richest regions of Italy, Lombardia, and still... if we were to only use digital courseware from next September, half my class couldn't study._

So, what are we supposed to do?

Personally, I’m really happy to hear Garamond’s decision and I share (even as a parent) their motivations, with one exception: the idea that everybody has or will have very soon computer and broadband connectivity, will know how to use them and will have the possibility to use them to study on a regular basis. I think this scenario is way too optimistic, for all the reasons Annalisa explained and a couple more. One is the fact that, at least here in Italy, many teachers have very little competence when it comes to computers. Another is that many families have more than one child, but only money for one computer. So let me share a few ideas about how I would manage an initiative like this. Garamond folks are good at their job and surely already know what I’m about to write, since they mention Creative Commons, but spending a few bits on this can’t hurt, can it now?

Creating new barriers would be extremely counterproductive for a project like this, both ethically and economically. Annalisa is right. How many classes in Italy have broadband AND enough computers AND all students with computer and Internet connection and/or money for ebook readers AND all teacher able to use “network-based, digital courseware” on a daily basis? I’d guess one every thousand.

Consequently, the first thing I’d do is to follow the approach of the Open Learning Exchange: aim to develop courseware that has extra features when used on a computer or through the Internet, but is fully useable for the curriculum even in its printable form. In that way, each class can print every month (at a copying store, to get bulk discounts) only the chapters that will be actually studied that month. The idea is, make something that fully equipped classes can use to do more, and everybody else can use to do the same things as before, but spending less. I’ll let it to readers to speak about other countries, but a strategy like this would be the only way to “sell” Social Learning now to all Italian schools.

As a second step, but always for the same reasons, I would avoid the error that (almost) all the big publishers that are trying to sell e-books in Italy are doing. An e-book is a file. Formatting it in ways that make it readable only in a certain number of copies, or only with one model of computer or e-book reader is just like printing a paper book that is only readable with glasses of one brand, and one only. Technically, it’s useless, as all protections are cracked within weeks. From a PR point of view, you risk boycott even from institutions that have the same ideals as you. Besides, looking at this from the point of view of a family that lives paycheck to paycheck, moving to digital textbooks only makes sense, and is sustainable, if:

  • it isn’t mandatory, meaning that their child can remain in the same class, studying on paper, even if his or her classmates have already moved to an iPad or equivalent device

  • when a home computer is available, it can be used to study no matter what model it is, or what operating system and softwar it runs, even if it’s old hardware that only surives thanks to trashware

  • there are guarantees that it won’t be necessary to buy new e-book readers every year, that they will be able to choose whatever model they can afford, including used ones, and that they will have to replace them only when they physically break. And they’ll also need guarantees that in the latter case they won’t have to buy again all their digital textbooks. This is important also for environmental reasons, since hardware pollutes a lot: the longer it lasts, the better for the environment

When paper textbooks are used, the son of a billionaire and the son of unemployed parents must both pay “only” 500 Euro of textbooks each year (in Italy) to have the same opportunities. Digital textbooks give the possibility to spend much less (while continuing to pay well, as they deserve good authors and editors!) to have the same initial opportunities, when studying in the traditional way, while opening in the same moment the door to new, more effective educational methods. But this only happens working in a manner that is both open and compatible with existing budgets and mentalities.

I close this page inviting all parents to immediately tell the teachers of their children: “I too want to use this new type of textbooks next year, I have no more money to waste: why haven’t you announced yet that you’ll adopt them?"