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comment by Viliam · 2019-09-19T19:48:10.348Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am usually thinking about completely boring ideas, that apparently seem crazy to most people.

Current example: Why the f*** aren't all elementary- and high-school textbooks free (either public domain or cc-by-sa), and freely available for digital download at some government website? Furthermore, why can't all students get free e-book readers, preloaded with all textbooks from all subjects, all grades, and all types of school?

The idea of "copyright" seems opposed to the idea of "compulsory education". (The former is mostly about excluding people who didn't pay; the latter is that no one is allowed to be excluded.) If the government wants everyone to know some given basic set of knowledge, it should obviously provide that set of knowledge for free, in most accessible form. Textbook authors should be paid for making the textbook once; afterwards the book should be free for anyone to read or modify. (By modification, I mean changing the format, translating into minority languages, adding comments and clarifications, etc.)

As soon as the copyright problem is solved and the textbooks are free, it makes sense in addition to paper books to also provide digital ones. My 60€ e-book reader comes with the entire f***ing Project Gutenberg installed. A school version could come with all the existing textbooks instead. As soon as the books are free, we don't have to picky about which ones to give to whom; just give everything to everyone. Spending 60€ per student seems like a good deal, compared with what paper textbooks cost. (Maybe the government could get even a better deal.) One reader is definitely easier to bring with you anywhere, compared to dozen textbooks. Remove all internet functionality to make them less distractive and less tempting to steal. (You should allow uploading books, though. Just so that you don't have to throw them away when a new version of a textbook comes.)

So far, this all seems relatively easy and cheap, so I feel it is crazy that no one did it so far. I mean, relatively easy and cheap compared to how we do things now. 60€ per student is peanuts compared to the money we already spend. Creating and digitizing the textbooks would be a lot of work in absolute terms, but divided by the number of students in the entire nation, the price per student would be negligible.

Now if you did this, it would suddenly give you new options you currently don't have. You could cheaply extend this service to adults who are already out of school and want to refresh their knowledge. (This would actually cost you nothing; just sell them the reader for 60€, as adults they can hopefully afford it. The content is free.) Or consider immigrants: you could just given them the readers as soon as they enter your country. You could have volunteers translating the texts to all kinds of languages. And you could add a special picture-based textbook of your language. Or if there is a new scientific discovery that changes something, you can have textbooks updated across the entire nation quickly and cheaply. (Just make the updates in bulk, once per year. Plug the reader to a school server, and have an application that compares directories and copies the new content.)

To get a bit more expensive, I could imagine schools to provide larger readers, integrated into school desks. Imagine a 1 meter long screen, below an almost indestructible glass, plus two buttons for previous/next page, plus two or more extra buttons to navigate the menu. This solves the problem of stupid students who keep losing their personal readers. (And it allows the gifted students to read at their own pace.) But I understand if someone would skip this one step for financial reasons.

Yes, parts of this already exist. You can get digital knowledge on YouTube or Khan Academy; there are places you can download some free textbooks, etc. But what I imagine is a nationwide, official, fully integrated solution, which requires zero extra effort from the side of a parent or a student or a teacher. Throwing all the trivial and less-than-trivial inconvenience away. Overcoming the fear of nonconformity by making it the standard solution.

And, ironically, my proposal is still relatively conservative, or at least orthogonal to many other possible improvement. I am not suggesting what should be the content of the textbooks. (Keep it the same. Or change it completely.) I ignore the topic of homeschooling or unschooling. (Give them the reader. Let them ignore it if they choose so.) In other words, I believe this should be relatively uncontroversial, at least content-wise.

Yet I suppose most people would consider this too crazy to try.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-09-24T14:14:51.374Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your proposal might be conservative in the political sphere of your country where the people who want socialism back are the conservatives but in most of the Western world using socialist means of centralized planning is considered to be left-wing.

In particular this proposal centralizes power over how the textbooks that are used to educate the young into the hands of the national government and thus is likely to be both opposed by the teachers who want that power to be at a lower level and the companies who make money with selling services into the education market.

Taking on both the teachers unions and all the pro-corporate lobbyists is a political nonstarter. It's the complete opposite of an uncontroversial proposal.

comment by Viliam · 2019-09-24T20:19:45.064Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I meant "conservative" as in "actually changes very little", not as in politics. Like, I am not suggesting to change what should be learned, when, or how; just to make the textbooks (also) digital, and free to use. Sorry for confusion.

Also, I had a situation in Slovakia in mind, where textbooks already are centralized, probably more than in most countries. (As far as I know, in most European countries you can have multiple competing textbooks certified as being "compatible with what the state wants you to learn". In Slovakia, you can only have one. Like, two authors could write almost identical textbooks, only one would be allowed for use in schools, the other would not.) Making the approved book free would strictly improve things.

Then again, you could have multiple competing free textbooks. Plus an option to upload your own ones on the school tablet.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-09-24T21:24:58.815Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay, when you already have a system where there exists only one state approved nationwide textbook this would be easier politically as it is in states like the US or Germany where that isn't the case.

Currently, textbooks are made by private corporations and not by the state. It seems to me like your proposal does change that and would make the state more responsible for the textbook.

If you make the textbook free you don't have different vendors competing anymore into providing a superior product.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-09-20T14:10:39.040Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is obviously a good idea[1] if you take as given the stated goals of the public education system.

But who actually has any incentive to invest effort into seeing this done? (The question isn’t [entirely] rhetorical, and the answer isn’t “no one at all”; but if you consider the answer, and then ask after the overlap between the set of people you get, and the set of people who have decision-making power over the system, then the puzzle should resolve itself easily enough.)


  1. The e-reader thing, not the “integrated into school desk” part, which is not at all a good idea—but we can ignore that, as it is not critical to the point. ↩︎

comment by notjaelkoh · 2019-09-20T12:24:09.474Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-09-20T14:23:46.264Z · score: 14 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

… merely delaying the school start time by 1 hour …

[…]

The truth is, education isn’t about learning new things. It’s about separating students based on how conformist and intelligent they are.

Does it really strike you as plausible, that the reason why school start time isn’t delayed an hour, is that education is about ranking students by conformism/intelligence?

If we grant the premise (and I do, more or less), still it seems like such ranking could as easily be accomplished an hour later as earlier; more easily, even, since you wouldn’t be artificially depressing the performance of the students—which you obviously don’t want to do if you’re trying to measure said performance! And if, indeed, a later start time reduces teen mortality and crime, while at worst having no detrimental effect on ability to accomplish the main goal (ranking students), then pushing the school day forward an hour seems like a no-brainer. We should see parents, public officials, etc., advocating for it; we should see politicians adopting it as a campaign platform; and we should have, by now, seen it widely implemented.

Yet, with minor and insignificant exceptions, we don’t see this. Why not?

Because if you pushed the school day forward an hour, then, on average, many fewer parents would be able to take the kids to school on their own way to work.

Because while ranking kids by intelligence/conformism/whatever is one major function of public schools, another, and also very important, function is simply the fact of keeping kids attended, confined, and “out of trouble”, while their parents are at work.

(See also “after-school programs”. You cannot feasibly extend the school day past ~3 PM—the students will stop paying attention, teachers’ unions will revolt, etc.—but you’ve got to have some plausible reason to keep [at least some of] the kids in the building until their parents get off work and can come pick them up.)

comment by Slider · 2019-09-20T14:41:15.388Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the models how such weeding might happen is that you want some precentage of the students to fail. If you apply pressure the breaking point is reached faster. Making a change that helps everybody makes it so that you have to compare higher performance levels which is often harder than comparing low performance levels.

comment by notjaelkoh · 2019-09-20T15:20:48.053Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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comment by Ruby · 2019-09-25T00:57:51.336Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Definitely a question worth thinking about.

A difficulty with your proposal of textbooks being free and their authors getting paid once by the government is that now someone has to decide which textbook authors get paid. If you pay anyone who writes a textbook you'll find there are a lot of people writing quite crappy textbooks. Right now there's some process (probably at the level of teachers?) who decide which textbooks are worth buying and it wouldn't be easy to have all the teachers to all coordinate on which textbooks should be bought with an unlimited license by the government.

High school textbook are probably a crappy market at present, but it's still something of pricing mechanism I think you'd need to replicate.

comment by Viliam · 2019-09-25T21:45:27.522Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay, I see that my idea does depend too much on the situation in my country. (Well, the question was, what crazy ideas are we thinking about. I was thinking about how to improve the situation in my country. But now I see that the solution would not generalize well.)

In Slovakia, the situation is more like "there are no good textbooks" rather than "there are multiple decent textbooks competing on the market". For example, after computer science was added as a high-school subject, for the few following years there were still no textbooks for the subject; teachers had to improvise. (Which was okay for me, but not for everyone.) For some other subjects, there are textbooks teachers complain about, but it's all they have.

My guess (I may be completely wrong here) is that writing the entire book is simply too much, even for teachers who are good at what they do. It would take you the entire year, I suppose; and maybe even this would turn out to be a planning fallacy. Maybe it would be better to generate the textbook wiki-style; perhaps start with an inferior product, and keep fixing bugs. In Slovakia, the government dictates which topics need to be taught, in which order. For this project, this could be an advantage: the list of chapters is already given, all you need is write them one by one. Not necessarily each chapter by the same person.

Having multiple versions and choosing from them, that would be a nice problem to have. But even then, I suppose, paying the first author a fixed amount of money in return for giving up copyright would have the advantage that the author no longer can (nor has an incentive to) prevent later improvements by volunteers. I mean, teachers often prepare texts for their classes, and they don't get paid extra for that; some of them probably wouldn't mind contributing to the common project.