Publishers answering the call for digital textbooks

Many digital textbook choices exist, but the quality varies widely.

(Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on digital textbooks. Part 2, which will run next month, will focus on schools’ use of digital texts in the classroom.)

The call for U.S. schools to move toward digital textbooks within the next five years has some education officials pondering their options. Publishers, meanwhile, are starting to answer the call.

Last year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged the nation’s schools to opt for digital textbooks as quickly as possible. “Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete,” he said during a National Press Club address in October. “The world is changing. This has to be where we go as a country.”

But a number of challenges to reaching this goal exist—including finding and evaluating high-quality digital texts. To help school leaders with this challenge, here’s a closer look at the current digital textbook market for K-12 schools.

Apple iBooks

In January 2012, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, introduced a new generation of the free iBooks app for iPads, which for the first time offered textbooks starting at $14.99 or less for high school students.

The iBooks store is stocked by works from publishing giants Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, which make up 90 percent of the U.S. textbook market, as well as digital textbooks authored by educators and smaller publishers.

Educators can browse for textbooks by subject area, and users can rate and review works in the bookstore. As of press time, there were some two dozen texts for life sciences and for physical sciences, and more than 30 texts for math and the humanities.

Authors of iBooks textbooks can continually update their content. Students, once they’ve purchased the digital book for their iPad, can view the updated versions at no additional charge, and they can keep the book in their library indefinitely.

iBooks textbooks feature interactive photos, videos, and diagrams, along with 3D images that can be manipulated and rotated with a touch of the screen. Students can highlight sections of a digital book with the swipe of a finger and create digital index cards inside the book without leaving their current page.

“It’s certainly something we’ve been dreaming about for a couple years,” said Bill Rankin, director of educational innovation at Abilene Christian University in Texas, at the time of the launch. “It’s equivalent to the democratization that happened under Gutenberg. … [Apple] isn’t just offering digitized versions of print material. This is a new-generation media object.”

The quality of digital textbooks in the iBooks store varies widely, however. Some are simply digitized versions of basic textbooks, with a few videos or animations embedded throughout the text, while others aim to take full advantage of the digital format.

The iBooks authoring tool lets anyone create digital textbooks for the iPad, making it easy for small publishers, startups, and even educators to create their own texts. For instance, a company called YourTeacher has created what it calls “a textbook with a teacher inside” for algebra and pre-algebra students.

The books, which are aligned with the Common Core standards and sell for $9.99, include videos of a teacher working out various math problems, as well as practice problems and a self-test widget that gives students immediate feedback. The company claims that Houston’s KIPP Academy piloted the books last year and saw up to a 30-percent improvement in students who were using it.

CK-12 Foundation

The nonprofit CK-12 Foundation aims to increase access to high-quality educational materials by offering free and open STEM content, as well as content for English, history, and economics.

These materials include a set of learning tools containing digital textbooks, concept-based learning, SAT prep, and FlexMath, a web-based interactive Algebra I curriculum. Additional interactive math and science subjects are currently in development. The tools are fully customizable depending on school, teacher, or student needs.

CK-12’s FlexBook System is an online platform for assembling, authoring, and distributing interactive, multimodal content. Teachers can rearrange chapters, add or remove content, and also edit the content. “Concepts” are small bits of information and lessons that can be added directly to a FlexBook or assigned to students for independent learning. “Interactive learning objects” feature videos and other multimedia, while the system’s “exercises” help students track their progress via immediate feedback. Other teaching materials that accompany the FlexBooks give educators answer keys and ideas for differentiated instruction, as well as access to assessments.

Last fall, the CK-12 Foundation said it was upgrading its FlexBook system to offer multiple modalities, including textual descriptions, video lectures, interactive models, flash cards, quizzes, definitional and difficulty scaffolding, concepts maps, and more.

The move comes as a nod to individual and differentiated learning, and foundation representatives said the CK-12 curricula should be customizable for students’ preferred learning methods to help them absorb as much information as possible.

“We believe that students have different interests, goals, styles and pace of learning,” said Neeru Khosla, founding executive director for CK-12 Foundation, in a statement. “Learning is a personal process and requires individualization of style and level of learning, as well as customization of content in a world that has increasing administrative rules and limitations on teachers and declining resources.”

CK-12 also offers ways to crowd-source or locally source additional content, follow or customize paths of learning (concept maps) through concepts to be learned, and add external technology resources, such as learning management systems. Over time, CK-12 expects to expand its range of offerings to include assessment tools and adaptive learning algorithms to help guide learning.


Kno, which features more than 200,000 digital titles and recently expanded from higher education into K-12, is compatible on the iPad, Android devices, Windows 7 and 8, and a web browser.

In January, the company launched Kno Me, a personal study dashboard that helps students measure their engagement with each Kno eTextbook they use. They can view near real-time stats on their study behavior, interaction levels, time management, and progress. The dashboard also offers opt-in social functions that let students share their results with peers and follow the engagement levels of other classmates.

For digital textbooks to be used in the classroom in a significant way, Kno co-founder and CEO Osman Rashid said three things must happen:

• Students must have access to mobile devices such as tablets, as well as cloud computing that lets them study and be in sync anytime, anywhere.

• Digital texts and mobile devices must offer engaging learning experiences.

• Content must be available in a significant fashion—students and teachers can’t have access to only one out of five major titles.

“Unless these three are working in tandem, pilots will fail,” Rashid said.

He added: “We think engagement is a leading indicator of performance. If students never really understood a topic, of course their quiz [performance] will not be good. You cannot just have a flat PDF—that’s unacceptable and is a waste of money.”

Discovery Education

Long a player in education technology, Discovery Education launched its TechBooks about a year ago. These cloud-based digital textbooks include videos, embedded assessments, regularly updated content, and other interactive features.

The TechBooks cover K-12 science, including biology, chemistry, physics, and earth and space science. Four middle school social studies classes are currently in beta testing, with plans to launch them in time for the 2013-14 school year.

TechBooks are platform-neutral and are compatible with iPads, laptops, Android devices, other mobile devices, and desktops.

“The ability to cross-platform was really important to us,” said Scott Kinney, who leads the Discovery Education Professional Development Team and is Discovery’s educational liaison for public policy. “We heard from schools that there isn’t always [device] standardization.”

In fact, many schools that implement a “bring your own device” policy find that students bring a variety of devices and platforms to school, and cross-platform solutions are an easy way to ensure that a digital textbook will operate on all devices.

Kinney said engaging and adaptable tools are important. Much of K-12 education is “not providing students with content that’s adaptive to meet their needs, their learning styles, and also that gives them the opportunity to go beyond the content,” he said. “We want to foster that engagement and that excitement for learning.”

Digital textbooks offer the chance for continuing education in case of a natural disaster, illness outbreak, or an individual student’s extended absence, Kinney added. Because TechBooks are cloud-based, educators can build and deliver content to students from any internet-enabled location. The solution also offers scaffolding that teachers can adjust to students’ ability, and TechBook content can be updated and aligned with new standards.


At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, McGraw-Hill introduced the LearnSmart Advantage suite, an adaptive learning solution that includes the SmartBook for adaptive learning.

As a company, McGraw-Hill is leaving behind the term “digital textbook,” because its next focus is on many layers of educational resources that are digital, said Dan Caton, president of McGraw-Hill School Education.

The contrast, Caton said, is between what is known as scroll-and-stare and interact-and-learn. Scroll-and-stare occurs when information is presented in a digital format, but is static, and is merely presented to the reader. Interact-and-learn requires content providers to place a complete curriculum online, prompting students to read material but also to interact with characters online, go through simulations, and participate in other interactivity. These interactions are adaptive and give each student a personalized experience.

“We don’t disparage digital texts or iTextbooks, and we’re happy to provide those things, but we really believe we need to partner with our customers to wherever they want to go—and many are ready to go into that adaptive world,” Caton said.

(Next month: a more in-depth look at schools’ experiences as they move to digital textbooks.)

Laura Ascione

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