REM

Last week, amidst the sweeping political mandates of the Presidential debates, education Secretary Arne Duncan made a mandate of his own, calling for the nation to ditch printed textbooks in favor of digital ones. "Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete," he declared. Often, too little thought goes into the real world implications of what politicians say. This statement, however, left us scratching our collective heads a bit. Just how feasible is Duncan’s plan? As we’ve pointed out before, in the hands of children, Kindles have a tendency to break and iPads to shatter. What happens then?

Classrooms need technology—that we acknowledge. In fact, a big part of our mission is teaching through technology. If we want 21st-century problem solvers, we need to train them on 21st-century technology.

Durable technology can be manufactured, but over 80 million students are currently enrolled in U.S. schools and colleges—that’s far more than the 47.5 million tablets that Forbes estimates are currently in use nationwide. Are we entering the age of “one tablet per child”? If so, is there a plan for sustainable manufacturing of these devices? And what is the government’s plan for e-waste, and the inevitable end-of-life for all these e-textbooks?

Currently, the government doesn't have a specific plan for end-of-life management. Instead, they specifically buy from green-certified retailers, most of whom have a takeback plan for retiring electronics. But recycling these devices has inherent drawbacks. You can't make a new Kindle out of a recycled Kindle. Moreover, recycling wastes the embodied energy in the device and, currently, electronics recyclers aren't recovering rare earths.

A student learning on an iPad makes for a nice photoshoot, but that is just one snapshot in time. We need a plan to deal with the entire lifecycle of these devices. We need to make strong decisions and commitments about all of our technology, from cradle to grave.

If you have any answers, or more questions, concerning e-textbooks, drop us a comment below. Issues can’t be solved without talking them through first. We need all the voices we can get.