Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Oct. 2 called for the nation to move as fast as possible away from printed textbooks and toward digital ones. “Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete,” he declared.
It’s not just a matter of keeping up with the times, Duncan said in remarks to the National Press Club. It’s about keeping up with other countries whose students are leaving their American counterparts in the dust.
South Korea, which consistently outperforms the U.S. when it comes to educational outcomes, is moving far faster than the U.S. in adopting digital learning environments. One of the most wired countries in the world, South Korea has set a goal to go fully digital with its textbooks by 2015.
“The world is changing,” Duncan said. “This has to be where we go as a country.”
The transition from print to digital instruction involves much more than scanning books and uploading them to computers, tablet devices, or eReaders. Proponents describe a comprehensive shift to immersive, online learning experiences that engage students in a way a textbook never could.
For instance, students studying algebra might click to watch a video clip explaining a new concept or property. If they get stuck, interactive help features could help them figure out the problem. Personalized quizzes ensure they’re not missing anything—and if they are, bring them up to speed before they move on to the next lesson. Social networking would allow students to interact with teachers and each other, even when school isn’t in session.
Using digital textbooks, schools can save money on hard copies and get updated material to students more quickly, Duncan said. School districts also might be able to pick and choose their curriculum buffet-style. A district might choose one publisher’s top-notch chapter on Shakespeare, but follow it with another publisher’s section on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”
But adopting digital textbooks isn’t as easy as a directive from Washington, D.C. States set their own processes for selecting and purchasing textbooks that match their needs.