In his ‘illustrious’ movie career, Arnold Schwarzenegger did quite a bit of damage to people and property, but he managed to cause much more shock and anger when, as governor of California, he tried to make changes to the education system. In 2009, whilst trying to solve the problem of a $24 billion budget deficit, he announced that he wanted to make schoolbooks obsolete.
“It’s nonsensical and expensive to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form,” Schwarzenegger said in a newspaper interview. “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.”
It was a nice touch to suggest that educators have their hands tied behind their backs if they’re forced to teach their pupils with just books to help them.
He also pointed out that today’s school pupils feel comfortable using electronic equipment. “Textbooks are outdated, in my opinion,” he said. “For too many years, we’ve been trying to teach kids exactly the same way.”
California’s schoolbook bill in 2008 was $350 million. The governor argued that the state’s children could be educated far more cheaply in a paper-free environment. With this in mind, Schwarzenegger and his education advisers wanted to launch a scheme in August 2010 whereby California’s high-school pupils would have access to online math and science texts using a digital textbook like a Sony reader, which would be provided free.
I can’t find any information online to confirm whether this actually took place, so if there are any Californians reading this, maybe you could add a note at the end.
California isn’t the only place where these discussions about similar radical changes are taking place. Here in Europe, most national governments are having to think along the same lines. In almost every case, I imagine they’re trying to work out how much money they can save if they don’t have to buy books.
As an ELT author, I suppose I should be ranting on about how disgraceful it is to think of a world without books.
But I’m not going to do that.
I think paper-free education is a great idea. And the main reason is an environmental one. I see the disappearance of schoolbooks as a totally positive thing for the planet. Beyond ecological issues, there’s no question in my mind that, at some indeterminate point in the future, all education will be in an electronic/digital format.
The problem is knowing when this ‘indeterminate point in the future’ is. And in ELT, it’s a pressing one for the people who produce materials, both publishers and authors.
And let’s start with a pat on the back for ELT publishers, who already produce masses of very good supplementary materials that are freely available online. And there are lots of individuals around who provide even more free online material through blogs, websites and other means.
As a result, at this point in time, publishers face two problems:
1 Some teachers, institutions and even states are already set up to teach electronically, most are not – yet. The simple solution would be to make all materials available both in paper form and online, or a combination of both. But this would be very expensive.
2 Given the amount that publishers already make available for free online, working out how to make people pay for this kind of material in future is going to involve some clever marketing.
Key players in the education industry are going to have to make some important decisions soon.
To help them, I offer – the Theory of the Adjacent Possible.
The Theory of the Adjacent Possible is kind of obvious when you hear it described, but everything has to be expounded and given a name somewhere and by someone. In this case, the someone is a man called Stuart Kauffman, an American theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher (no idea what that means), who was born in 1939.
Basically, the idea of the Adjacent Possible (for a science dunce like me) is that evolution is rarely revolution, it’s a simple step from what there is now into the next possible set of circumstances.
Kauffman believes that the whole of biological evolution is based on this concept. To survive, all living creatures, or ‘autonomous agents’ as Kauffman calls them, have had to evolve toward a higher complexity. They do this step-by-step, in other words ‘The Adjacent Possible’.
Now a younger more TV-friendly writer called Steven Johnson has revived the idea of The Adjacent Possible in a book called Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.
Here’s a short extract from an interview with Johnson in The Guardian, on 19th October 2010, which really nails the point that major changes rarely come in a true eureka moment.
One night in 1902, an ambitious young American engineer named Willis Carrier was waiting for a train, watching fog roll in across the platform, when he had a sudden flash of insight: he could exploit the principle of fog to cool buildings. He patented the idea, protected it fiercely, put his new invention into production, and made a fortune. As eureka moments go, even Archimedes might have had to concede that Carrier’s was impressive.
Carrier’s company, still in existence and worth billions of dollars, cornered the market in air conditioning. However, for Johnson, the point of this story is that moments like this are as rare as hen’s teeth. Big ideas like this are hardly ever the result of a blinding flash of inspiration. And they rarely emerge from someone working alone.
It’s much more likely that great new ideas are simply the next logical or feasible step. “The history of cultural progress,” Johnson writes, “is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another, exploring the palace one room at a time.”
He makes an analogy with chess where, at any given time, several moves may be possible, but countless others won’t be. It’s the same with inventions: the printing press was only possible after moveable type, paper and ink had all been invented. YouTube, when it was launched in 2005, was a brilliant idea; had it been launched in 1995, before broadband and cheap video cameras were widespread, it would have been a terrible one.
I think the same thing applies to the future of education. There will be no e-revolution, but in 25 years time, education will be almost entirely electronic, but it will have been achieved by a gradual process. The days of paper books are numbered. In environmental terms, this is a good thing.
And the future looks bright for the next generation of ELT workers, young men and women who are in the early years of their career, and looking to move into writing. As the market fragments even more than it has done already, publishers are going to need more material for students, not less.
If you want to be an educational writer, there will be lots of work for you. You may have to accept fees for the work that you do rather than royalties, but you will still be able to earn money by writing. ELT writing will become more like journalism, and the things people write will be more up-to-the minute as a result. I think Sean Banville’s breakingnewsenglish.com is a kind of blueprint for the future in this respect.
So pens at the ready (if you still use such old-fashioned devices for writing) and wait for the call. When publishers realize how much material they need to satisfy the requirements of future English learners, they will need your help – and quickly.