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Discovery Education offering schools free digital textbooks

Experts said that the digital divide is education’s greatest challenge. Discovery will offer its Techbooks free through June.

During a conference on digital learning, award-winning Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told peers, publishers, and congressmen that going digital in schools is more than just incorporating cool gadgets–it’s a moral imperative. Matching Carvalho’s message, Discovery Education announced that it will give all schools a free trial of its digital “Techbooks.”

“Not providing kids access to the internet and digital resources is not a skillset deficiency, or a resource deficiency,” said Carvalho. “It’s a political courage deficiency. We must erase the digital divide in urban and rural areas to truly unify our country.”

Carvalho’s stirring presentation was part of a day-long conference by Discovery Education and Digital Promise—a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to spur innovation in education—along with Connect2Compete, ERDI, ISTE, NCERT, and many other organizations, to discuss the state of digital learning and its impact on college and workforce readiness.

(Next page: The inspiration for the conference)

The conference, Future@Now: Transition to Digital Classrooms, aimed to raise awareness about the benefits of digital learning and celebrate the successes of districts that have already deployed digital textbooks in meaningful ways.

The conference is also intended to drive discussion among education thought-leaders, school district leaders, and members of the business community on the challenges of transitioning to digital learning, the impact of digital resources on students and educators, and opportunities to advance the adoption of innovative digital tools in order to be prepare today’s students for the careers of tomorrow.

According to Carvalho, there are many reform schools should have today, including less dependence on seat time and redesigning classroom interiors that “no adult would ever consider conducive to learning, so why should we expect our children to?”

Yet, the biggest issue facing education today, Carvalho said, is the digital divide.

“The conversation can’t start around devices,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people say ‘It’s about 1:1,’ or ‘look at all the things this smart phone can do,’ but it’s the content and the practice that must come first, otherwise you’re just increasing the digital divide. And it all starts with equitable access to high-speed wireless and quality digital resources.”

Miami-Dade is the nation’s fourth largest school system. M-DCPS is now widely considered one of the nation’s highest-performing urban school systems as the 2012 winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education and has been identified by the AP|College Board as a leader in minority student participation and performance on Advanced Placement Exams.

Carvalho, who is also president of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS), said that it began with an understanding that 90 percent of all people start out in life with the same experience—the experience of being in a classroom.

“It all begins there,” he explained. “If there’s a digital divide in the classroom, it creates an opportunity gap. This gap creates the education gap, and the education gap creates the economic gap. This is why all classrooms in the U.S. must have access.”

(Next page: How Miami-Dade secured technology funding)

Besides boosting student engagement, Carvalho said a shift to digital learning is the only way to provide 24/7 access to learning. Digital learning also provides the means for both acceleration and remediation, and personalization and differentiation for every child. Students can also take responsibility for their own learning outside of school hours, instilling a sense of ownership and inciting wonderment.

In Miami-Dade, Carvalho said he knew that for every dollar the district spent, the government would spend 10 dollars because of the socio-economic conditions of the area. However, that still wasn’t be enough to get every school high-speed internet access.

“We went to the community and asked for their support. By going to the community we raised 7 million dollars in 60 days. With that initial investment we set up internet and digital resources in some of our schools.” But it didn’t end there.

“The best marketing is through results,” said Carvalho. “With our initial investment we showed the community data on how digital learning affected our schools: with higher achievement levels and higher graduation rates. That year the community voted on a measure that would provide an additional $1.2 billion for schools with $120 million of that going specifically to technology.”

He concluded: “A lot of people say that true reform is slow and steady and this speed will help ensure success. That’s wrong. School reform needs to be swift, pervasive, and ubiquitous, before we lose more students–and that can only happen through digital empowerment.”

Carvalho said one of the biggest challenges, besides funding, in making the digital shift is due to textbook publishers that work with states to set mandates for cyclical buying patterns for print textbooks, as well as mandating that if digital textbooks are used, print must also be purchased.

“Price fixing and platform-fixing also need to disappear,” he said. “These things are anti-American.”

(Next page: Free Discovery Techbooks)

Heeding Carvalho’s call, Discovery Education announced that it will offer its Techbook series—a series of digital textbooks featuring K-12 science; physics, chemistry, and biology; and middle school social studies—for free from now until the end of June 2013.

In addition, Discovery and ISTE will provide educators with the chance to participate in more than 40 virtual professional development sessions, also at no cost, to support educators in effective classroom implementation of digital tools.

“There is a new imperative of digital learning in this country,” said Senior Democratic Member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.), author of the Transforming Education through Technology Act. “The digitization of America’s classrooms is one of the most important issues we as a society can tackle today.”

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