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States move slowly toward digital textbooks

While education leaders in many states buy into the potential learning benefits of digital content, there are numerous hurdles they need to clear first.

Despite enthusiasm for digital textbooks at the national level, states have been slow to get on board. But the movement is gaining strength.

Digital textbooks have gotten a lot of ink in recent months. In January, Apple attracted attention when it announced its foray into the field with the iBook, a multimedia-rich textbook for the iPad produced by the biggest educational publishers and costing less than $15. The next month, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, unveiled the Obama administration’s Digital Learning Playbook and called for all students to use digital textbooks by 2017.

“If we want American students to be the best prepared to compete in the 21st-century economy,” Genachowski said, “we can’t allow a majority of our students to miss out on the opportunities of digital textbooks.”

For all the noise nationally, movement to digital has been slow at the state and district level. Digital textbooks still account for only a small fraction of overall textbook sales. Still, several states have enacted changes in recent years to make it easier for districts to go digital and use free material in the classroom that’s available digitally.

This year, Alabama’s legislature is considering a bill that would provide digital textbooks and tablet devices to all high school students, to be paid for with $100 million in bonds. The measure was approved in the House Education Policy committee at the end of February but hasn’t made it to the House floor. If it does ultimately pass, Alabama would be only the second state to require the purchase of digital content. Florida became the first last year, when it moved to require that all schools spend at least 50 percent of their annual instructional materials budget on digital content by the 2015-16 school year.

While education leaders in many states buy into the potential learning benefits of digital content, there are numerous hurdles they need to clear before they can catch up to Florida, or make meaningful progress toward the Obama administration’s goal.

Defining terms

For a number of states, the first question is defining what constitutes a textbook. In the past few years, several states have redefined the terms “textbook” and “instructional materials” to include a wider array of options, including digital texts and material and, in some cases, actual hardware.

That’s the case in Indiana, where the state’s board of education issued a blanket waiver to all districts in 2009 allowing them to spend all or part of the money they previously spent on textbooks to purchase digital content or devices. That waiver became part of state law in 2011.

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