Change does not always come easy. It often comes with the sacrifice of people whose livelihoods depend on the old way of things and against the influence of the powerful who are heavily invested in keeping the status-quo. However, sometimes change is not an option but rather a challenge a nation should rise up to. This is exactly when leaders are needed to champion necessary change, sometimes against powerful interest groups, while mitigating the impact for the people affected.
Taiwan may be facing such a challenge now in order to help reduce the burden of its school kids, literally. By the end of the year, the Ministry of Education (MOE) will complete its “schoolbag weight loss” program started in 2008 to cut the weight of the average school bag for elementary students to no more than one-eighth of the weight of the child who carries it. According to National University of Taiwan research commissioned by the MOE, the program will end with disappointing results.
The research showed that one in four school kids in Taiwan are still shouldering overweight schoolbags. Due to the common establishment of lockers in schools in northern metropolitan areas, students in Taipei and Keelung are faring better but students in rural areas are doing worse than the national average.
Changhua County tops the chart with 42 percent of schoolchildren burdened by overweight schoolbags. Chiayi County follows with 37 percent. Over 30 percent of students in Nantou County, Hsinchu City, Taichung City and Tainan City carry schoolbags heavier than the MOE’s recommended one-eighth of the bearer’s weight, the research found.
While the study highlighted school lockers as the key to reducing schoolbag weight, the government should start to make long-term plans to digitalize textbooks. Rather than being concerned with minor details such as the styles of schoolbags, whether children carry an extra handbag or whether they have to carry their water bottles, the obvious solution is to tackle the main source of weight in schoolbags ― the textbooks.
The advantage of e-textbooks weight-wise is obvious. The digitalization of heavy textbooks will solve the schoolbag weight problem once and for all. But the fact is “schoolbag weight loss” is only one of the reasons for the digitalization of textbooks.
E-textbooks enable a new, multimedia approach of conveying information which is especially useful for graphic and numerical data-intensive subjects such as mathematics and sciences, and voice-intensive ones such as foreign languages. Imagine teaching geometry with interactive graphics and teaching English with on-demand real human voice pronunciation (to spice it up even a little bit more, imagine teaching English with celebrity voiceovers).
The recent advancements of tablet devices and touch-screen interfaces also help remove one of the major obstacles for classroom digitalization ― the rejection of non-technology-savvy teachers who might find computerized education intimidating. The relatively intuitive touch-screen interface greatly simplifies the learning process for teaching through e-devices.
Some developed nations are already moving forward with textbook digitalization. South Korea’s education ministry recently announced plans to digitalize the entire education system by 2015 for an estimated $2.4 billion. The U.S. is also studying the prospects for comprehensive digitalization.
With its strong technology industry, its competitive education scene and its talent-based economy, Taiwan has every reason to push for e-textbook development. The government could, for example, cooperate with local schools, textbook publishers and electronics makers to build Taiwan’s e-textbook device, content and content-providing platform.
The rise of e-textbooks will no doubt be challenging for some people such as publishers unwilling or without adequate resources to go digital, the printing business, and textbook stores, to name a few. The government should start consulting people in related businesses, encourage some to transform to meet the new e-education era and help others to cope with possible impacts.
The government should also start to locate funding for the development of e-textbooks, which should be free or at least not more expensive than printed textbooks in order to prevent the widening of the wealth gap in education. It might even consider electricity subsidies for poorer families to cover the costs of recharging electronic education devices.
Last but not least, the use of etextbooks does not mean the eradication of paper in classrooms. The emotional attachment that comes with the ownership of printed books and the freedom to doodle on them can be highly educational. And in a culture that hails calligraphy as a national treasure, students should always learn how to write properly, with ink and on paper.