By Denis Pimenov
There is no doubt that classical paper textbooks’ days are numbered. With this in mind, the Education Ministry’s initiative is welcome, giving the opportunity to experiment with electronic tablet devices for educational purposes. Initially, pupils at the Belarusian State University’s Lyceum will be the first to receive their own personal e-books, loaded with digital copies of ordinary school textbooks and additional materials for independent work. The feasibility of expanding the project will be decided in two years’ time, when it may also be decided to produce such computers domestically.
Some question whether we should waste money and time on creating simple digital copies of printed textbooks when we could enhance the quality of education by including multimedia sound, video, slide shows, search systems and interactive functions. There could also be an Internet version of each textbook, with lecturers simply downloading additional materials as required. In fact, Sakrament IT — a High-Tech Park resident — has already developed prototypes of such textbooks in the Republic, as part of a UNESCO project (compiling software to synthesise Belarusian language for those with sight disabilities). It has prepared a set of multimedia audio textbooks, used for the past two years at Belarusian schools for the sight impaired. Transforming from an audio version to a visual text is an easy task, although the company asserts that it will take several months to develop a full set of textbooks for secondary schools. Over 160 books on the school curriculum will be cheaper when converted to a multimedia library, since costs are less than for creating printed versions. A whole library can be downloaded on a single CD for just $10. Moreover, if additional services are offered for a charge, the project should pay for itself.
Editions initially prepared for those with sight disabilities use software synthesising speech; this can voice any text, describing diagrams and tables. This can be offered as an additional option for children with full sight, helping save tired eyes from staring at the monitor (according to statistics, 40 percent of all teenagers suffer from sight problems by the time they leave school). Listening to teaching materials can be very useful and is a good use of travel time. In fact, the Belarusian multimedia textbook can also operate with any mobile МР3 device, with the software able to download over 150 textbooks (with audio functions) to an i-phone, i-pad, laptop, notebook, netbook or personal computer. This unique innovative development is patented by the Belarusian company.
“Technically and intellectually, schoolchildren are ready to work with multimedia textbooks. Our polls show that they enjoy working in this way and learn better using software,” explains the founder of Sakrament IT, Valery Yegorov. “As regards the cost to the state budget, our project foresees each schoolchild using their own phone or mobile computer device to download our textbooks. Only families on low incomes will need computers bought for them.”
Mr. Yegorov agrees that reading texts on small smartphone screens is problematic but listening is possible. On coming home, or at school, a child can download a text to their computer, viewing it on a large screen. Sakrament IT has found that 95 percent of 9th-11th grade children and 70 percent of 7th-8th grade urban pupils already have computers. Moreover, it’s possible to buy second hand computers cheaply. Even new models can be purchased with low-cost credit. With this in mind, it seems likely that the education system will accept the proposal. If a state order is placed, the company will take out a bank loan to realise production or will ask the Belarusian Innovative Fund for financial support (which has already been offered).
Calculations show that the project will fully cover its costs in the first year of operation; moreover, a $6m+ profit is expected. Sakrament IT now plans to develop multimedia textbooks for higher educational establishments, having found that almost 90 percent of students are ready to buy such devices.