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Secondary school students will be able to use digital textbooks from next year but is that a good thing?

Traditional textbooks are heavy, not updated with the latest information frequently and apart from you being able to read it, there’s not much else that you can do with paper textbooks. I don’t think I have to say a lot to convince students, teachers and parents that when it comes to textbooks, the benefits of going digital far outweigh the downsides, and it is about time that our education system take a step into the digital age by allowing students to use digital textbooks instead of it cumbersome paper counterpart. 

Last Friday, Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching, in a surprise announcement, stated that secondary schools will be going digital with the introduction of e-textbooks starting from 2019. Students will be able to download relevant reading materials as PDF files, instead of requiring to bring a number of heavy and thick textbooks to school.

The deputy added that, for a start, the digital textbooks will be in PDF format only but the medium could evolve to include more interactive options allowing students to do more with their reading material. In addition, the use of digital textbooks will be limited to secondary schools only at least in the initial stage and discussions with the relevant parties are ongoing on whether to let students use their personal devices to download these reading materials or to use devices that will be provided by the school.

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While I am all for the adoption of digital textbooks in schools, the effectiveness of this medium is still being debated as there are significant challenges in implementation. For families who are on a budget purchasing a tablet can be something that is beyond their reach. Not being able to afford a tablet may lead to even further disparity in the education system where the more well-to-do generally get a better education compared to poor communities. Would this mean that only the well-heeled schools will get digital textbooks while poorer schools possibly those in rural areas would be left out? 

According to National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Harry Tan,  the implementation of digital textbooks is a good idea provided that every student has equal access to the medium.

“Perhaps the ministry can work with the private sector to provide laptops and computers to all students,” he said.

Yes there are challenges to adopting digital textbooks in our schools and it is indeed a massive undertaking but if implemented well, the benefits are great as well. Technology is part of our lives, so much so that it is indistinguishable from the norm. High school students can’t remember a time when people used to get their news from newspapers instead of Twitter or Facebook, when people posted pictures in albums instead of Instagram. Implemented well, technology can transform the classroom, the question is can it be done and who will bear the cost? Are parents willing? Would the private sector want to pitch in at the scale that is required for a successful implementation?

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This is not the first time the ministry has suggested the move to for digital adoption. Years back, YTL through its telecommunications arm, Yes 4G, worked with the ministry of education to deploy 1BestariNet. The project was supposed to bring classrooms into the digital age and it came complete with a digital education platform called Frog VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). Yet, the mere mention of the project would conjure up allegations of corruptions and cronyism. How would this be different?

With just one month left before the school holiday starts and another month after that before the school year starts again will this initiative even take off?

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