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Most Popular of 2015, No. ten: Are digital textbooks worth it?

By Mary Axelson
December 18th, 2015

Early digital textbook adopters share their pros and cons

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. We ran this feature on the challenges and opportunities of going digital early on — Jan. 28 to be exact — and in our January print edition. Writer Mary Axelson’s reporting was engrossing, and her case studies struck a chord with readers: While the original story ran across four pages, an unusually-above average number of you read it all the way to the end.

discovery-textbookIt has been nearly three years since the FCC and Education Secretary Arne Duncan rolled out the Digital Textbook Playbook and challenged schools to go digital within five years. It’s safe to say schools are not there yet. While going digital looks certain, arrival in two years looks doubtful.

The potential benefits for schools transitioning to digital curriculum—specifically, replacing their print textbooks with digital ones—remain compelling. As schools move to the Common Core, and Pluto shifts in and out of planetary status, information can be updated on the fly. Interactive quizzes, comments, and discussions live within the text itself. The addition of video, audio and interactivity allows for multi-modal, personalized, accessible and interactive learning; it’s lightweight for backpacks; and there are cost savings down the road from not printing.

Of course, widespread adoption relies on a robust infrastructure. Wireless bandwidth must be able to handle the load, and filtering must let advanced material through. Students need reliable devices at school and home, and the content needs to be designed for whatever platform they might have. Importantly, teachers need time to learn a new way of running a classroom.

Here, three early adopters of digital textbooks share their experiences, from conveniences and triumphs to pitfalls and setbacks. Their stories provide a glimpse into the present, still-evolving world of digital textbooks, and a hint into where it may be headed.

The Fairfax Learning Curve
Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, with 12,000 students per grade level, is a pioneer in the digital textbooks space. Craig Herring, the director of Prek-12 curriculum and instruction, explains that they started using some Pearson online textbooks in 2009, back when they were essentially PDF versions of the printed books. The next year, they flipped that model by buying online social studies books with some hardcopy backups. Those online textbooks included some new features, and they rolled that out to all grades, 7-12, in 2011.

Next page: The huge mistake that nearly derailed Fairfax’s program