Thursday 14 December 2017

Is the paperless classroom almost here? A textbook publisher answers...

Kim Bielenberg puts some searching questions to Martina Harford of the Irish Educational Publishers Association

At this time of year criticisms of schoolbook publishers are as common as yellowing autumn leaves.

Parents and teachers complain that publishers are making a killing, charging exorbitant prices and updating books so that students have to buy new editions.

But do these complaints have any validity, and will the printed schoolbook soon be obsolete? Publishers argue that updates are actually quite rare and prices have not risen over the past three years.

Is there a future for the printed book in classrooms?

If you look at the figures you can see how fast things are changing.

At the moment we estimate that between three and 5pc of the market consists of eBooks.

By 2015 that will have risen to 25pc, and by 2018 it will be 50pc.

In Korea they are committed to having paperless classrooms by 2015.

There is also a huge emphasis on moving to eBooks in Denmark and California.

However, printed books are still alive and kicking.

For one reason or another, not every school here will be able to convert to eBooks.

For the foreseeable future, I think there will be a hybrid model, where both eBooks and printed books are produced.

Whatever happens, the teacher will continue to be the key figure and is never going to be replaced.

Do eBooks work better for certain subjects?

They are certainly very useful for subjects like Geography, Science and Maths.

If a teacher has a lesson on volcanoes it is great to be able to show a video of an eruption, rather than just having a picture in a book.

You can do that easily with eBooks.

Likewise, in Science there are advantages to being able to show students how experiments happen.

So, what about the claim that publishers change their editions too regularly, so that parents have to buy more books?

That is an unfair claim. If you look at the figures for this year, you will find that only 1.4pc of the 2014 schoolbook titles that are in circulation were updated.

We adhere to a Code of Practice that prevents the revision of any text within four years, unless there is a change in the curriculum, or to the state examination.

When a revised edition of a textbook is produced, the old edition will be kept in print for a two-year period.

This means that a new edition of a textbook will be available for a minimum of six years.

What about the claim that books are too expensive?

Again, that is unfair. Textbook prices have been more or less frozen since 2009, despite a 25pc increase in global paper prices.

Certain items such as exam papers have actually come down in price in recent years.

A Barnardos survey showed that the price of schoolbooks has reduced slightly for some students.

I'm not saying it does not cost people a lot of money to buy books. I'm a parent myself. There are a lot of costs for parents that come at the same time of year, such as uniforms and fees for activities.

If there was some way of spreading these costs through the year, it would be a lot better.

What about the use of work books at primary level? Do they not add extra costs because they cannot be re-sold?

The workbooks produced by our members tend to be competitively priced.

Teachers like them because they can be used for doing homework.

In many schools, they are now cutting back on the number of workbooks used. Children are being told to write in copybooks instead.

Will there be a saving with eBooks?

We estimate that there should be reductions in prices of up to 35pc over printed books.

However, much of this saving is negated by the 23pc VAT on eBooks.

That is a real bone of contention for us. We have called for VAT on educational eBooks to be reduced.

One advantage of eBooks is that they can be updated easily.

There is an emphasis on ensuring that the eBooks work on as many platforms as possible -- whether it is a laptop or iPad.

In some schools, students are being encouraged to bring their own device from home, so that if they can't afford a new iPad or laptop they have something to use.

How will publishers be affected by the new Junior Cycle curriculum?

We welcome the changes that are being made, and the move away from rote learning to a more investigative approach.

We are having meetings with the Minister and officials about the changes.

We'd like the maximum amount of information on it and sufficient notice, so that we are not expected to produce material overnight.

We feel that we can play a part in its success.

The short courses are going to be very important, and publishers will be looking at opportunities to produce high-quality material.

One example of the type of new material that we might be producing is for teaching Mandarin Chinese.

I can see that becoming a core subject in the future.

Is the market for school books shrinking?

It is well below what it was.

The size of the market in Ireland is €55m, which is down from the peak of €65m.

Martina Harford is Vice Chairman of the Irish Educational Publishers Association and Chief Executive of Edco

Irish Independent

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