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Going paperless...Are we really saving money?

I've been continuing to kick around the idea of going paperless in K-12 education, particularly at the elementary level. It's becoming something of a personal crusade as I watch teachers crank out reams of worksheets for their students and find money to buy toner to support their habit.
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I've been continuing to kick around the idea of going paperless in K-12 education, particularly at the elementary level. It's becoming something of a personal crusade as I watch teachers crank out reams of worksheets for their students and find money to buy toner to support their habit. Watching businesses as well turn increasingly to electronic storage and the cloud for their documentation and collaboration needs, I have to wonder if we're educating kids under an old-fashioned and outdated model.

I could probably go on about that for a while, particularly as Jason Perlow keeps throwing out cool ideas for hardware that would aid me in my quest for the Holy Grail of Ed Tech (a hardware/software stack that allows kids to do the majority of what they need and want to do electronically in a pedagogically sound manner and integrating the most useful and progressive of "21st Century Skills").

In many ways, though, what this has to come down to is the bottom line. Can we actually save money with a shift like this? This is pretty hard to measure when we're just waving our arms about vaporware. Beyond the devices and software that only kind of exist (the Amazon Kindle and Sony E-book reader are about as close as we get), there is a distinct dearth of electronic textbooks. This is, of course, something of a chicken-and-egg problem. Why build a device if the textbooks don't exist? Why create electronic textbooks if the device doesn't exist?

One thing that we do have, though, are electronic novels and kids books. We don't have very good licensing models for them yet, but we do at least have the media. Here's an excerpt from the Amazon Kindle License Agreement:

Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.

Restrictions. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party...

Not sounding too friendly to reuse in a school by various students, is it? Does this, in fact, imply that every student would need a copy of every book that might be covered in a curriculum? There's a lot of room for discussion here, but let's make some assumptions for the sake of argument about cost:

  • A Kindle (or similar Kindroid sort of device) would have a lifespan of 3 years in a kid's backpack
  • Let's think primarily about the grades 3-5 space, where books are getting longer, a Kindroid would make sense as kids this age are relatively responsible, and readings aren't becoming as differentiated as they might in high school (AP classes, vs. honors classes, vs. college prep, vs. mainstream, vs. tech ed, etc.).
  • Teachers agree on a standard reading list for all kids in these grades, so each Kindroid gets a copy of every book they'll need for the duration of the grades, getting around perceived licensing problems
  • We get a 30% discount off list prices for the electronic books on Amazon (fairly reasonable, given expected discounts to educators for paper books)
    • Now that those are out of the way, the Massachusetts State frameworks contain plenty of suggested readings (See page 101 and 102 here). After talking with a few elementary teachers and the curriculum folks in our district, it seems reasonable to pick 2 poetry anthologies, 2 mythology anthologies, Grimms Fairy Tales, Kipling's Just So Stories, Aesop's Fables, and 12 young reader books (along the lines of L. Frank Baum, Beverly Cleary, etc.).

      A visit to the Amazon Kindle Store yielded the following: Just So Stories, $0.95 Aesop's Fables, $2.79 Grimm's Fairy Tales, $0.99 The Heroes; or, Greek Fairy Tales: For My Children, $9.99 The Children of Odin - The Book of Northern Myths, $0.99 A Boy's Will and North of Boston (Robert Frost), $2.39 Works of Lewis Carroll, $4.79 12 Beverly Cleary books (picked for ease of calculation, average price per book), $2.00 each.

      Thus, with the 30% discount, each student could have the full late elementary curriculum for around $33. Obviously, the device has a cost, but I could envision this one device becoming a trusted companion for kids as they make their way through the grades.

      To purchase the same books (or similar books, since Amazon creates "Kindle Editions") on paper from Amazon, you would spend (again, assuming a 30% discount) about $123. Do book last longer than 3 years? Perhaps, but note that where I could, I chose paperbacks to save money.

      These are just numbers to think about, but if textbook publishers could get in the game and start offering discounts for e-books, the Kindroid just might become a money-saving proposition.

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