CAIRO—The rising cost of printing school textbooks has provoked a debate in Egypt about proposals to replace printed textbooks with digital texts. An Egyptian member of parliament, Hala Abu Saad, said last month that introducing digital texts would be an alternative to printing costs that reached 1.8 billion Egyptian pounds (about $100 million) in the year 2016-2017.
The fall in value of the Egyptian pound has sharply increased the price of imported materials. In the previous year, 2015-6, the cost of printing textbooks was 1.2 billion Egyptian pounds, according to the ministry of education. The cost of printing has risen in one year by 600 million Egyptian pounds ($33 million).
Tarek Shawki, Egypt’s education minister, is an enthusiastic proponent of electronic education. He has announced that his ministry will reduce the printing of secondary school textbooks in the coming academic year by 70 percent. This step, the minister said, is part of the ministry’s strategy to boost the adoption of modern teaching techniques that depend on interaction and innovation rather than rote memorization.
“The majority of Egyptian schools are prepared for the introduction of e-learning technologies,” Ibrahim Farag, a senior official at the education ministry, told Al-Fanar Media. Farag said the move away from printed books will begin in the coming school year.
Shawki said the move towards digital texts would expand the role of the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, which started up last year. The knowledge bank is a digital library that provides students and researchers with free access to content from well-known information databases and academic publishers.
The debate in Egypt about a push for more digital learning mirrors similar discussions in other Arab countries, which traditionally have required any online learning to be anchored in a “brick and mortar” institution. Jordan’s ministry of education is considering giving credit for online learning, spurred in part by the pressure of trying to educate refugees.
In Egypt, the ministry’s plan has created a hornet’s nest of controversy. Maha Bali, an associate professor of practice at the American University in Cairo, said the idea of replacing printed textbooks with electronic ones would be inequitable since not all families have electronic devices. This problem would be even greater if there were two or three students in the family, she said.
“Implementing this plan would be a long process and the ministry should consider the problems of poor Internet connectivity and recurrent power cuts, particularly in rural areas. There are many alternative ways to develop education,” Bali said.
Bali said that providing schools with more computers would not be a solution, since there would be questions regarding how much time students would be required to spend in school computer labs. She said that in some conservative rural areas, families do not allow their young girls to use the Internet.
“It is better to focus on honing teachers’ skills and reforming the curriculum. These issues should be given top priority,” she said.
Bali said learning technology should meet the needs of teachers. “Teachers should be trained first in using e-learning technologies since they are the ones who pass on this knowledge to students.”
As for the cost of printing, Bali said the ministry can re-use printed textbooks, especially in courses where the curriculum does not change. “In many countries, students return their textbooks at the end of the school year,” she said.
For university students, the issue of relying on e-textbooks would be different. “The majority of university students already have mobile phones, and so they have access to the internet,” she explained.
Bali also stressed there are certain elements related to screen reading that should be taken into consideration to ensure effective learning and sustained attention, including screen size, room lighting and suitable distance from the screen.
In this regard, she referred to some studies that spotlight the effectiveness of reading from paper compared to screens. “Reading from paper helps you take notes and highlight the important points and so on,” she said. (She wrote a blog post titled “5 Reasons Why E-Textbooks in Egypt Would be Inequitable.”)
Kamal Mougheeth, a researcher at the National Centre for Educational Research and Development, said the ministry of education should try using e-textbooks at six or seven public schools. “After thoroughly assessing this trial in rural and urban areas, the ministry can decide whether to expand this method to other schools or not.”
Many families live beneath the poverty line and do not even know how to use mobile phones or computers, Moghith said. “In this way, the only advantage of doing away with familiar textbooks would be saving the printing costs.”
Mougheeth believes both e-textbooks and traditional textbooks should be included in the educational process to reach the optimum learning environment. “E-textbooks definitely offer interactive learning, save time and effort, provide students with a variety of educational content, and enhance their critical thinking. But paper textbooks remain a key source for knowledge,” he said.