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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why Technology Will Not Save Money In Education

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times has been making the rounds of Jewish educational "cyberspace", Who really benefits from putting high-tech gadgets in classrooms?. The main thesis of this piece is that the hype by government spokespeople and Apple about digital textbooks and the like is much more about selling iPads and other Apple products than it is about sound education.

One of the most often repeated claims about the benefits of educational technology that this article challenges is the premise that integrating technology in education will achieve a substantial cost savings. The key quote (I believe) is by Thomas Reeves, an educational technology expert at University of Georgia:

There are two big lies the educational technology industry tells... One, you can replace the teacher. Two, you'll save money in the process. Neither is borne out.

This issue is especially poignant in the field of Jewish education where technology integration is often viewed as the solution for the tuition crisis. My friend, Rabbi Aaron Ross in an excellent recent blog posting calls into question this assertion. I will elaborate on one area addressed in the Los Angeles Times article and touched upon by Rabbi Ross that has been of tremendous recent interest to me, the iPad and digital textbooks.

As I have written, digital textbooks on the iPad or other similar e-readers can be a great boon for education in that they can contain much richer interactive content than any traditional textbook. (Although this is not yet the case as Jeffrey Thomas points out in his scathing critique of the first generation of digital textbooks using the iBooks platform.) They can also solve the age old problem of portability with children transporting back and forth from school to home one 1.3 pound device instead of a knapsack full of books weighing dozens of pounds. However, after some simple analysis, I do NOT believe using the iPad for digital textbooks will achieve any cost savings. Rather, it will raise the textbook cost by upwards of $500 per student.

Let me explain. The iPad costs approximately $500 and textbooks from iBooks are currently priced at $14.99 each. Let's assume for this projection that Apple will lower it's textbook price at some point in the near future to $10 each. I think it is fair to assume that Apple will NEVER charge less than $10 for a digital textbook and that the iPad will NEVER be cheaper than $500 considering how Apple has succeeded in keeping it's prices standard over the years.

Now, the average paper high school textbook costs $80. Some cost a little less, many cost more but that is the average. It sounds like the iBooks would be a great deal at $15. But here is the catch. The iBook is sold to the STUDENT while paper textbooks are purchased by the SCHOOL and lent to the student for the duration of the school year. What this means is that a school will have to pay $10 every single year to supply students with digital textbooks for the iPad. This is in addition to the $500 cost for the iPad.

Now let's do the math. If the average paper textbook lasts 8 years, in reality many textbooks are used for twice that time, then within eight years the cost of the iBook is the same as the cost of the paper textbook NOT INCLUDING the $500 for the iPad. In reality, the digital textbooks then become at least $500 more per student for his/her four years in high school than the paper ones. That is a substantial sum of money.

Now you might argue that replacing digital textbooks each year allows a school to always stay current and you would be right. It is pathetic when a student is studying from a history textbook that is 15 years old in which Bill Clinton is still the president. However, in science this time span is less significant and in math it is certainly possible that the 15 year old book is a much better textbook since nothing substantial has changed in high school mathematics in the last 15 years.

Anyways, your argument would be besides the point since my assertion is not that paper textbooks are necessarily better. There are many reasons why the digital books could be vastly superior as stated earlier. My argument is that digital textbooks, as with most educational technologies, are not cheaper. The only way to save money utilizing technology in education is to fire teachers, as Aaron Ross points out in his posting, and a world where our teachers start being replaced by computers is a very scary slippery slope which I am not ready to climb.

Mind you, I am very excited about the potential for iPads to transform education. The fact that iPads are on in less than 15 seconds as opposed to the average laptop that can take 2-5 minutes for start up and log on is a VAST improvement in the classroom where students often learn in 40 minute periods. The ability using iPads to take pictures and video, edit that multi-media content and combine it with text and other web-based resources, and present the finished product is much more than any laptop can do and the easy portability of iPads is a great asset as well. Even the promise of digital textbooks with interactive content is something I am greatly looking forward to.

However, I get very scared when the focus of technology becomes about the device and how it will save us money whether it be iPads, Smart Boards, digital textbooks, or online learning. Educational technology as with all educational innovations can never focus on the device. It has to focus on meeting our curricular and educational goals. Sometimes technology can better achieve these goals, other times it cannot. But don't be fooled by the salesperson or government spokesperson who says that iPads (SmartBoards, online learning, or any other tech flavor of the month) are the panacea for education or the solution to the tuition crisis. It's not about the gadget, it's how we use it.


  1. If the cost is $500 you are correct. But for the past year a school could acquire refurbished iPads directly from Apple with the same warranty for $350, and our school acquired a bunch last year when iPads were on a close out sale at the Verizon store for $300, and even today there is a strong reseller community with aftermarket warranties from sites like for as low as $269. Not to mention the cheaper (although still having issues with UI for students and IT management) option of cheap android tablets which are getting cheaper and better all the time.
    Your question shouldn't be whether the iPad at full price saves money but rather at what price point 1:1 tablet computing is cost effective. And I believe with a little bit of bargain hunting, that time is today.

  2. Even if what you were saying were true, that would still be $300 more per students, assuming paper textbooks were only replaced once every 8 years when in reality they are used for much longer and that iBooks were discounted to $10 each instead of the $14.99 they are currently. Yes, the price point would be lower and iPads might be quite appealing for many educational reasons but cost savings would not be one of them. This is besides the fact that iPads are rarely in closeout and that Apple never discounts more than a few dollars on these devices. I would recommend against buying refurbished iPads for a school environment since these devices will be used (and abused) by students so you want the best possible device with full warranty etc. Androids might be cheaper but at least currently it seems like iPads are becoming the standard in Jewish education.


  4. Two other factors worth noting... how often do Ipads break? From what I am hearing, many of them do (being dropped etc.)How much tech hardware do you have from eight years ago? I bet it is not much. The other thing I would say is that if a students has a number of books on the Ipad, than the cost of the Ipad per book would obviously drop. However, overall I agree with you that Ipads won't make things cheaper in any significant way.

  5. A few further points
    1) I can tell you that the $300 price point was true as I purchased them
    2) Regarding refurbished iPads , they come with the same warranty and apple care that new ones come with (note that is for a 32gb with 3g version, as the 16gb wifi version is sold out.) And in terms of resiliency, we have 40 iPads, and after 2/3 rds into the school year one was broken which was replaced by the Apple Store. Mind these are 1st gen ipads which are noticeably more durable than gen 2. I obviously can't predict the future, but i think a 10% annual loss is probably to be expected... perhaps the same as the number of textbooks that are no longer usable each year.
    3) The day the iPad 2 came out, the 1st gen iPad was discounted to $379 (for a new device) with the education discount. Expect similar price drops when the 3rd gen is released.
    4) The distinction you make with students purchasing textbooks vs schools depends on many factors both legal and practical, but the bottom line is this. The school can certainly purchase 1 ebook per student and re-use that ebook for a different student the next year. Again, a good deal of this depends on how the school set up their iPad uses, in terms of who owns the account on each device and who owns the device and how VPP vouchers are distributed. But regardless, there are other e textbooks besides iBooks. The very exciting ( project has tons of free textbooks available and amazon sells many as well all with potentially easier to understand and more cost effective licensing agreements.
    5) There are other areas a 1:1 program saves money. A school currently spends on average $100 per student per year on paper, ink, and printing costs, a great deal of which could be either completely saved or greatly mitigated by a 1:1 tablet program. For Sefarim as well, the iPad can be a great benefit. With free apps like u'v'lechtecha ba'derech (while obviously not completely replacing a sefer) this does greatly reduce the need for purchasing all students individual tanachs or mishnayot. Further, a 1:1 program does give each student a computing device, which inevitably reduces the need to purchase more computing devices for both the school and the home.

    I obviously do not think 1:1 tablet computing is the answer to a school's monetary issues, but I do think given on a basic level the cost savings it allows, it can make moving towards a 1:1 tablet program and all the true educational benefits that program provides, very affordable.

  6. eTextbooks compared to textbooks might not save money, but what if their interactive features let the student learn more independently? That can reduce costs significantly.

    "However, I get very scared when the focus of technology becomes about the device and how it will save us money... Educational technology as with all educational innovations can never focus on the device. It has to focus on meeting our curricular and educational goals."

    There is a finite amount of money available in the community and educational costs are already causing a significant burden. It might be easiest to achieve educational goals with a private tutor for every student. However, this is unrealistic. The focus has to take into account the cost. Technology can help significantly by both improving learning and lowering costs.

  7. Noam, thank you for sharing your link to the iPad deals. Concerning your first three points, I still believe that these deals are hard to come by since Apple rarely discounts their merchandise the way every other computer dealer does so they are hard to budget for in a large Yeshiva day school. Perhaps, iPad 2s will drop in price substantially when the iPad 3 comes out in the near future. We can hope.

    Concerning your fourth point, which you correctly realized is the crux of my article. I wish that your assertion that schools could reuse the ebook for a different student next year were true. Alas, I believe it is not. The distinction between students "owning" the textbook on the iPad and the school "owning" paper textbooks is a real one. Just read Apple's description of their volume purchase program: and then read this posting on an iOs Enterprise forum:

    When you purchase a volume license from Apple for an iBook or app you receive a redemption code that you give to the student who purchases the iBook using their Apple ID. The textbook belongs to them forever NOT to the school. When a new student comes the following year, then you need to purchase a new iBook all over again. I wish what you said were true or that Apple would change their policy to make it so. Then I would take back much of what I have written above as iBooks would truly become a cost effective alternative to paper textbooks. Sadly, the way Apple has currently devised their plan with the help of the textbook companies, it is not the case.

    Concerning your final point, one can certainly save paper, ink, and printing going 1:1 but these are not the major part of a school's budget. For that matter, textbooks is not a major cost either. The major cost is personel and gong 1:1 means you would have to grow your IT staff to service these extra devices.

    Glunker, interactive features might truly help our students learn independently as you point out. But it is very hard to put a cost on this. It might mean that iPads when used effectively will provide better education which I strongly agree could be the case. However, it is hard to quantify this. If you mean that we will be able to hire less teachers or fire some teachers that we have, then I start getting nervous. As I stated in my blog, I view technology as a powerful tool to enhance teaching not replace it. Also, while studies on the effectiveness of technology have been mixed, many studies have indicated that smaller class size, i.e more teachers, has a strong positive effect on student achievement. I would be very wary to try to get away with larger class sizes even with the help of technology.

  8. I think the deals will get more frequent with the next generation. Apple doesn't have sales, but they do heavily discount previous generation stock (see iphone 3gs and iphone 4)
    As for the iBooks policy. What you are referring to is when the students have their own Apple Ids on the devices. If there is one school account on all the devices, I believe the policy is different. I know for Apps if a school purchases an App through the Purchase program, as long as the App is installed using the school's Apple ID, it belongs to the school. What you are suggesting is that if a school buys iPads, loads them up with textbooks and gives them to the students, the next year they would have to write a check to Apple when they simply give the iPads to the new students.
    But again, this isn't about iBooks or whatever policy they may have. E-books can be obtained from a variety of locations such as Amazon Kindle or Google Books, many with terms much more favorable (, and even free from Any calculation of cost should be based on all available options.
    But you are correct, paper and textbooks are not major costs of a school. But then neither is a 1:1 tablet program given how cost effective it can be. So then if its either a potential small cost saver, or at worst a minor expense, given all that can be done with a 1:1 program, shouldn't more schools be doing it?