In a move that could be considered encouraging for advocates of digital learning, leaders from the Education Department (ED), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the textbook and broadband industry met March 29 on Capitol Hill to discuss how companies can better serve schools and districts with digital textbooks.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the meeting was a follow-up to a challenge issued by the two agencies last month to state and industry leaders to drive national adoption of digital textbooks in the next five years. (See “Feds’ challenge to schools: Embrace digital textbooks.”)
“That’s why we called this meeting, to bring together different parts of the digital text ecosystem and get some work done,” said Genachowski.
The different parts of the “ecosystem” included some of digital learning’s biggest players, such as Discovery Education and AT&T.
“Meetings like this bring a lot of exposure to the education industry and will continue to help the digital transformation,” said Bill Goodwyn, CEO of Discovery Education. “They also open doors for other companies to enter the education space. We hope what we are doing in these meetings will continue to encourage states and districts to introduce more flexibility in instructional materials funding and rules.”
Goodwyn also said that he, and others, believe that the five-year challenge is realistic, but will “require significant professional development for administrators and educators to turn them into the digital natives that students already are.”
James Coulter, co-chair of the Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission and co-founder of TPG Capital, presented a report on what it means to be “digital” in the U.S. today, as well as some of the major challenges facing widespread adoption of digital textbooks.
“Today there are more TV packages available than there were TV shows available when I was a kid,” said Coulter. “There’s so much available variety at the click of a button, and that’s where we are in the world. Today’s kids need to know so much more today than in past generations to be able to compete globally, and instead of providing them that same instant, digital access, their backpacks are the heaviest they’ve ever been! We need to change that.”
Coulter made sure to emphasize that technology is not a fix-all and that digital textbooks are a tool, not a way to “fundamentally change the teacher-student dynamic.”
One of the challenges he cited was resistance to change.
“We always talk about change and how it needs to happen,” he said, “but do we ever want our own lives to change drastically? Not usually, and that’s the mentality we have to get past.”
Coulter also noted that established institutions, like schools, have rarely embraced change, and that the momentum and blueprint for change needs to come from other places.
“Just look at the Beatles,” he said. “The recording industry wanted nothing to do with them—it was the people who spurred the change. If the recording industry is education, then students are the people.”
According to Coulter, students are more than willing to embrace digital texts, but first the “ecosystem” has to be in place—and that begins with connectivity, both at school and at home.
“I forget the exact number, but we’re around 60 percent to 70 percent connectivity in the U.S.,” he said, referring to households. “We need to be at 98 percent, at least.”
Another challenge is cost, but Coulter said money shouldn’t be an issue for long.
“Technology is multiplying and expanding rapidly, and costs will come down very soon,” he said. “The real question is: How can we fund the capital necessary? How can we fund the IT needed to get past the tipping point? These challenges, among other topics, are what we’re here to discuss.”
The LEAD Commission, said Coulter, should have a working blueprint for using technology as a catalyst to transform and improve American education by November of this year. This blueprint will include input from teachers, parents, local government officials, school officials, students, and education technology industry leaders, he said.
“We’re at the tipping point of success,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “We just need to get that [last] push.”
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