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Readers: Digital textbook implementation just a dream


“The digital divide will grow even larger without the financial support necessary to make this move a reality,” said one reader.

From calls to action from major education organizations, all the way to a mission set forth by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the higher-ups in education are saying it’s time to go all digital with textbooks.

But at the district, school, and classroom levels, is going all digital—which promises larger returns on investment and more interactive and personalized learning—as simple as it seems? And does going digital really put less strain on teachers and students?

According to readers, though digital textbooks sound good in theory, not all students would have access to these materials from home as well as school. Also, many schools just don’t have the funding, or infrastructure, needed to support these efforts.

Do you agree? Take a look at these arguments from readers and let us know! (Comments edited for brevity.)

Make it more than just a digital copy

“The iTextbook that students can have published is an educational milestone on several levels. The two that come to mind right away are (1) the learning they accomplished through the process and (2) the enhanced learning available to the users. This is an obvious example of [students] ‘owning’ the learning (the constructivist approach). With respect to the end user, the video and link enchantments take the usually plain eText format to a whole new level. While publishers have taken some steps to upgrade their texts from simple page-turners, it appears this publication goes way beyond that—making the embedded content the heart of the project. I do not think it’s pandering to the modern student to apply these kind of technological advancements to the educational environment. Rather, anything we can do to make education more relevant to our current technological environment is worth the effort.” —Tom Crawford, M.Ed. (Educational Technology), Instrumental and Exploratory Music, Emily Gray Jr. High, Tanque Verde Elem./Agua Caliente Elem.

“It is a great idea, in theory, but instead of just translating paper text to digital, one should embrace the capabilities of the technology and enhance the digital textbooks. Add videos, add audio, add experiments, … make it more interactive and engaging. Capture the way students learn, and then you will see added value and a growth in knowledge.” —Tryna King, product training coordinator, Winston-Salem, N.C.

The Koreans’ view of the digital textbook is much more than a digitized book. It is interactive content that can be leveraged inside and outside of the classroom. Since IMS [the IMS Global Learning Consortium, which has developed standards for the interoperability of digital content] is U.S. based, attending IMS meetings and/or keeping up on the IMS work is a great way to learn what the Koreans are doing. IMS standards are experiencing strong adoption in the U.S. now as well—but more from a bottom-up, district-by-district, and supplier-by-supplier approach. See [this] blog post on recent developments: http://www.imsglobal.org/blog/?p=124.” —rjabel

Not until everyone has access

“[Digital textbooks are a] good idea for many, but not so good for students [who] do not have computer/online access outside of the school. We have both hard copy and online [textbooks] available, which is how it should be until access is guaranteed [for] all.” —C. Smith, National Board Certified Teacher

“I am an administrator in the largest high school in Kansas—poverty level in the student population is around 70 percent—[and] the [idea] of textbooks being exclusively digital is far from practical. Students do not have the means to acquire the technology device necessary to facilitate digital content—[and] unless publishers have shifted their pricing structure, there is no cost advantage to going digital, while still paying the same price or an annual fee that is nearly the same.

“There isn’t an infrastructure in place for a district of 50,000 students to support the technology needs a digital dispersement would require. The mobility of students in an urban district induces a level of unexpected relocation that makes inventory of equipment extremely unpractical. Not a good idea to impose on districts.” —Steven Shook, assistant principal, IB coordinator, Wichita High School East, Wichita, Kan.

“For schools where students have iPods, laptops, eReaders, etc., that go home with [the students] at the end of the day, this is great—but not all students/schools have that option. I still have students who cannot afford a computer at home, much less a portable device. If a student has homework and needs to use the textbook to do it, this poses a problem for them and for the schools. These devices are costly for parents and/or schools to purchase and replace. I am not in favor of this.” —Paula Metz

Pedagogy comes first

“Schools and teachers must learn more about the pedagogy that supports learning from digital tools. Also, is it possible to put in some form of regulation of cost? School districts can easily go into debt just keeping up with the textbook demand related to the Common Core State Standards.” —Carolyn J. Evans, chief academic officer, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Mich.

“Who is teaching the teachers and students how to evaluate the resources; are they accurate? Have they been self-published, and, therefore, not edited or fact checked? Is the author an expert? Are students prepared to read ‘critically’ online for details? Are teachers prepared to detect plagiarized work, so easy with digitized text? Who in the school has the expertise to help with this? A good school librarian? … Well, that is, if the school has a school librarian. Sadly, I believe this is a huge missing piece. [It] reminds me of the way schools ran out and spent thousands of dollars on computers but never trained any of the teachers on [the] best ways to use them. Many of those computers sat untouched for a very long time. Some called them ‘boat anchors.’ Let’s prioritize and think it through this time. It is an idea whose time has come, but bring in some creative thinkers to determine how to pull it off.” —Sandy Kelly, LMS-NBCT, library media teacher, Carlisle School, Carlisle, Mass.

Digital resources need time to mature

“We are a school using digital textbooks this year. We have to use three different formats with considerable variance in quality and features. This should not be a federal mandate, but a local school district or state-enabled requirement. Published textbooks are still valuable. Digital resources are not mature enough or widely available yet. Devices are not yet accessible to sufficient numbers of students to move there yet. Some students need physical books for best learning and matched learning style. Young students do not have the fine motor skills or development to take full advantage of digital resources, so that some content may not transfer to a useable media for them. Eliminating weight of printed textbooks is a good thing. Textbook resources need to eventually assimilate individualized modification by … experienced and creative teachers and/or be preplaced by multimedia curriculum that are flexible and dynamic.” —Larry O’Reilly, education technology specialist, Southeast Christian School, Parker, Colo.

“From our one-to-one computing experience at Mercy High School, yes, it’s easier said than done. This past year while embracing a dual environment, PCs and Macs, we’ve found that the digital world hasn’t worked out all [the] kinks while promising the ultimate digital textbook solution. If it’s an enhancement to a textbook, perhaps; however, from our experience, not all students find digital books the solution. There’s a myriad of digital enhancements for lesson content; however, the publishers are just coming on board—working feverishly to offer eBook and iBook options. We’re definitely looking for the ultimate solution to lighten backpacks, but in reality, there are a number of details—along with a committed staff—that needs to be in place before digital texts are a working reality.” —Cheryl Corte

“I am pretty technically savvy, and I use lots of technology both at home and for teaching. However, I recently took an advanced (master’s level) chemistry class using the online version of a very popular chemistry textbook. After just two weeks of the class, I gave up on the online version and shelled out the cash for the dead tree version. My verdict: Digital textbooks stink. I had similar experiences with computer programming, physics, mathematics, and biology texts. Moving to digital texts may be appropriate in the humanities, but they are, ironically, worse than useless for science and technical fields. Publishers simply have not created effective note-taking and annotation tools for digital texts. Three things must happen before we start, lemming-like, over the digital text cliff. One is that someone is going to have to buy digital devices for every single student. The second is that someone is going to have to pay for unlimited wireless bandwidth in every school and every student’s home. The third is that textbook publishers are going to have to come out with a much better product, because the current digital textbooks are garbage.” —ctdahle

Infrastructure is not yet ready

As a middle school principal and a supporter of education attempting to keeping pace with the ‘real world,’ I am all about using digital tools. However, nothing is ever as easy as, ‘I say we should, and therefore it happens.’ We have one district in our Regional Education Service Area that rolled out iPads to all students [in] grades 6-12 at the start of the 2012-13 school year. That district is now responsible for utilizing 40 percent of our county’s daily internet usage. We have seven other districts, one considerably larger than that one, and six similar in size. Question: Where would we be if every district in our county rolled out the same initiative? Answer: We would all be using chalkboards, because our current infrastructure and support would crash and burn. “Our excellent RESA tech staff is struggling to keep service up and going at present under current demands. In average Michigan counties, this initiative would cost millions of dollars to upgrade infrastructure (increasing broadband and firewall securities) in addition to hiring enough staff to support the increases to all aspect of the system.  If this comes to the locals as yet another unfunded mandate, it will not be possible—but it is fun to dream!” —Matt Drake, principal, Capac Middle School, Capac Virtual Education Program director

No funding, no digital texts

“I do agree that we should go digital, but where are the funds going to come from to ensure that all students have access to the digital format at school and home? I work in a Title I building where I have one student computer for 26 students and a SMART Board. As well, many of our students do not have access to the internet at home. An answer might be, go to the library to do your work. [But many students] don’t have a means of transportation. Take a bus to get to the library. Again, they don’t have the financial means to spend on a bus ticket. I’m truly interested in how to make this happen, but as we can see in our large district, we have … groups of ‘haves’ [and] ‘have nots,’ and going digital will take huge financial obligations which, at this time, our district does not have. … I’m more interested in how this will be accomplished throughout our nation in an equitable fashion.” —Mrs. Dorsey

“Many districts are struggling to balance budgets in this difficult economy. Budget cuts and increased service costs make this more challenging each year. In order to begin to make the move to digital textbooks, schools will need to purchase and maintain an eReader for every student. Districts will then need to make textbook purchases for every subject taught to each student. Further complicating the move is the fact that most textbook publishers charge a yearly per-license fee for continued use. These expenses are a daunting challenge for any district. For urban districts, the cost makes this move impossible. As a result, the digital divide will grow even larger without the financial support necessary to make this move a reality. Instead of purchasing all of the consultants hired to support Race To The Top initiatives, how about putting these funds toward worthwhile improvements such as this? Wouldn’t it make sense to provide teachers with the tools to effectively prepare their students for the future while we evaluate how well they do so?” —Elaine Zagrodny , grade 3 teacher, Citizen’s Memorial Elementary School, Woonsocket Education Department

What about students with disabilities?

“So, how do teachers assist in the rapid development of student maturity? Have there been any new developments in funding for this? What about the issue of gravitational pull? Kids can be clumsy. If these textbooks are online and the wireless network fails, technology then begins to prove inefficiency. What about districts that have a high population of students with disabilities?” —wallace

All texts are going out of style

“It seems so obvious to me: If a school system or selected grades are ensuring students could have access to eBooks, they should optimize the learning by using no textbooks. Have the students identify, evaluate, and organize information from found sources, leading to effective learning!” —jcbjr

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