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Who really benefits from putting high-tech gadgets in classrooms?

How much genuine value is there in fancy educational electronics? Don't let companies or politicians fool you.

February 04, 2012|Michael Hiltzik

If you say so, Phil. But it's proper to point out the downside to one great innovation Schiller touted, a desktop publishing app called iBooks Author. The app is free, and plainly can help users create visually striking textbooks. But buried in the user license is a rule that if you sell a product created with iBooks Author, you can sell it only through Apple's iBookstore, and Apple will keep 30% of the purchase price. (Also, your full-featured iBook will be readable only on an Apple device such as an iPad.)

Among tech pundits, the reaction to this unusual restriction has ranged from citing its "unprecedented audacity" to calling it "mind-bogglingly greedy and evil." Apple won't comment for the record on the uproar. Whatever you think of it, the rule makes clear that Apple's interest in educational innovation is distinctly mercantile. But that didn't keep Genachowski from praising Apple's education initiative as an "important step." (Perhaps he meant a step toward enhanced profitability.)

Of course Apple draped its new business initiative in all sorts of Steve Jobsian pixie dust, as if it's all about revolutionizing education. The company's most amusing claim is that iPads are somehow more "durable" than textbooks and therefore more affordable, over time. Its website weeps copious crocodile tears over the sad fate of textbooks — "as books are passed along from one student to the next, they get more highlighted, dog-eared, tattered and worn." Yet as James Kendrick of ZDNet reports, school administrators who have handed laptops out to students to take home say the devices get beaten nearly to death in no time. The reality is obvious: Drop a biology textbook on a floor, you pick it up. Drop an iPad, you'll be sweeping it up.

Some digital textbooks may have advantages over their paper cousins. Well-produced multimedia features can improve students' understanding of difficult or recondite concepts. But there's a fine line between an enhancement and a distraction, and if textbook producers are using movies and 3-D animations to paper over the absence of serious research in their work, that's not progress.

Nor is it a given that e-books will be cheaper than bound books, especially when the cost of the reading devices is factored in. Apple tries to entice schools to buy iPads in blocks of 10 by offering a lavish discount of, well, $20 per unit. They still cost $479 each. The company also provides a bulk discount on extended warranties for the device, but — surprise! — it doesn't cover accidental damage from drops or spills.

Apple and its government mouthpieces speak highly of the ability to feed constant updates to digital textbooks so they never go out of date. But that's relevant to a rather small subset of schoolbooks such as those dealing with the leading edge of certain sciences — though I'm not sure how many K-12 pupils are immersed in advanced subjects such as quantum mechanics or string theory. The standard text of "Romeo and Juliet," on the other hand, has been pretty well locked down since 1599.

There's certainly an important role for technology in the classroom. And the U.S. won't benefit if students in poor neighborhoods fall further behind their middle-class or affluent peers in access to broadband Internet connectivity or computers. But mindless servility to technology for its own sake, which is what Duncan and Genachowski are promoting on behalf of self-interested companies like Apple, will make things worse, not better.

That's because it distracts from and sucks money away from the most important goal, which is maintaining good teaching practices and employing good teachers in the classroom. What's scary about the recent presentation by Duncan and Genachowski is that it shows that for all their supposed experience and expertise, they've bought snake oil. They're simply trying to rebottle it for us as the elixir of the gods.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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