The Obama administration has challenged schools and companies to get digital textbooks in students' hands within five years.

Are hardbound textbooks going the way of slide rules and typewriters in schools?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski on Feb. 1 challenged schools and companies to get digital textbooks in students’ hands within five years. The Obama administration’s push comes two weeks after Apple Inc. announced it would start to sell electronic versions of a few standard high-school books for use on its iPad tablet.

Digital books are viewed as a way to provide interactive learning, potentially save money, and get updated material faster to students.

Digital learning environments have been embraced in Florida, Idaho, Utah, and California, as well as Joplin, Mo., where laptops replaced textbooks destroyed in a tornado. But many schools lack the broadband capacity or the computers or tablets to adopt the technology, and finding the money to go completely digital is difficult for many schools in tough economic times.

Tied to the Feb. 1 announcement at a digital town hall was the government’s release of a 67-page “playbook” to schools that promotes the use of digital textbooks and offers guidance. The administration hopes that dollars spent on traditional textbooks can instead go toward making digital learning more feasible.

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Going digital improves the learning process, and it’s being rolled out at a faster pace in other countries such as South Korea, Genachowski said in an interview. Genachowski said he’s hopeful it can be cost-effective in the long run, especially as the price of digital tablets drops.

Watch an example of Apple’s new digital textbooks

 

“When a student reads a textbook and gets to something they don’t know, they are stuck,” Genachowski said. “Working with the same material on a digital textbook, when they get to something they don’t know, the device can let them explore, it can show them what a word means, how to solve a math problem that they couldn’t figure out how to solve.”

Students can use the textbooks for video explanations to help with homework, they can interact with molecules, and they can manipulate a digital globe to see stories and data about countries, said Karen Cator, director of the Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology.

“We’re not talking about the print-based textbook now being digital. We’re talking about a much more robust and interactive and engaging environment to support learning,” Cator said.

About $8 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on textbooks for children in kindergarten through 12th grade, said Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers. Diskey said textbook companies have been working on the technology for the past five years to eight years to transform the industry, but in many cases, schools simply aren’t ready.