Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

5 Reasons Why e-textbooks in Egypt Would Be Inequitable 

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Reading Time: 2 minutes

I just read about the decision to stop printing Egyptian school textbooks and instead replace them with digital ones. I suspect these won’t be better quality than existing hard copy textbooks (though I read they might be) so I won’t discuss that dimension. I also need to clarify that in Egypt the ministry-issued textbooks are what curriculum is centered on. I don’t like that, but that’s how it is. There have been objections to this based on equity, but not all have been specific. Here are mine

  1. The idea that all households have electronic devices is problematic. While many low income households have mobile phones, at which age is a school-age child given a mobile phone? I suspect not at age 6. Also, if these households have a computer and 5 kids sharing it, and all have an exam this week, who decides who gets to review materials online? I suppose families will make choices based on the elder child, maybe? So ageist sibling inequality could occur
  2. The cybercafé argument is moot. I learned from teachers in public schools that while boys are often allowed to go to these cafés (which aren’t free of course), girls are often not allowed to go. Hence, gender inequality will occur.
  3. Different people have access to different devices. It is rare that any learning material performs equally well across all devices. Most things work best on a computer and behave slightly differently on tablets and mobiles, and behave differently on iOS vs Android, for example. Therefore device inequality can occur (where people with better economic means can afford the better devices or the ones that suit them better – I prefer reading on an iPad for example – and can read more comfortably).
  4. Infrastructure differences are not negligible. If some areas of Cairo (let alone rural areas) have not only unreliable Internet connectivity but even electricity, then how will a household with multiple school children manage? (CDs not a solution for households that don’t have computers). Even differences in maximum possible internet speeds (even in some affluent neighborhoods, because of underlying infrastructure) means what takes one student an hour to do may take another student 3 hours. And that’s not equitable. Some people can’t afford to pay all this extra electricity even if they have it available. 
  5. Suggesting that school labs become better equipped so people can access these from school is not a solution. Who gets access to these labs, for how long, and at what times? If after-school times are offered, which students can afford to stay that late? Imagine the older girl who helps at home with babysitting or cooking, for example.

I won’t comment on differences among people’s comfort with reading on screen (especially if you cannot annotate/highlight) because my initial argument is about equity of access, which precedes other arguments.

Sure, as argued, maybe this will help channel more government funds to improving infrastructure. But these decisions cannot be taken retroactively. Fix the infrastructure first and ensure all children have access to dedicated devices at home before making such a decision. I have read that the plan is to provide students with tablets. I do not have sufficient information to know how providing a tablet per student could possibly be cheaper than printing textbooks. But I am willing to listen to a proposal. Maybe even one where textbooks are no longer the center of the curriculum.

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