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The End of Textbooks?

What's stopping districts from ditching paper textbooks for good? Bureaucracy, budget woes, and inflexible teaching methods.

By David Rapp | November/December 2008

Those paper textbooks your students are carrying are costing you a lot of money.

Typical elementary-school textbooks cost more than $100 each, and, as a result, the four largest textbook publishers rake in more than $4 billion each year. A big part of that haul, of course, comes out of state education budgets nationwide. Besides cost, traditional paper textbooks have other disadvantages. They are easily damaged, and their subject matter can become outdated or obsolete in just a few years. And any student can testify to how textbooks are heavy and inconvenient to carry around.

Paperless digital textbooks, or e-textbooks, don’t have these problems. They cost significantly less than traditional textbooks, are relatively vandal-proof, and many can be regularly updated online. E-textbooks can incorporate video, online connectivity, and other features that can’t exist on the printed page. In an age in which many school districts are overwhelmingly embracing technology—while, at the same time, looking to cut costs wherever they can—why do trailing-edge paper textbooks still dominate in K–12 schools?

The higher-education market, unlike the K–12 arena, has begun to embrace e-textbooks. To bring thousands of major publishers’ higher-education e-textbooks to market this fall, CourseSmart is using an e-book platform by Tennessee-based Ingram Digital. This effort will create the largest inventory of e-textbooks ever. But this supply will be marketed almost solely to colleges and universities—markets that are accustomed to cash-strapped students buying their own books and balking at the skyrocketing prices.

Relatively speaking, the K–12 e-textbook market remains moribund. It’s not for lack of quality product, says William Chesser, the vice president and general manager of Ingram Digital Education Solutions. Particularly in recent years, e-textbooks for the K–12 market have become content-rich teaching tools.

“Ten years ago, even eight years ago, in that market, a lot of what you’d see would just be a reproduction of the book,” Chesser says. “E-textbooks weren’t taking advantage of the things that a computer can do. What you’re seeing in the last few years is the development of multimedia content that’s linked to external systems—assessment systems, homework management systems, that kind of thing.” And the multimedia aspect will only get better. “My sense is that a lot of the effort in K–12 has been concentrated on systems that support teachers, systems that are ancillary to the content itself—with less effort to translate paper text into an e-book alternative,” he says.

The biggest challenge for the makers of e-textbooks is to find a way to break into the K–12 market. “There’s no question that higher-ed is out front,” says Chesser. “But from my point of view, it’s much more about the business models than it is about the technology.”

Chesser, a former assistant director of K–12 teacher training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says there are three main hurdles that have made today’s K–12 e-textbook situation so problematic.

Hurdle #1:
The textbook-adoption cycle
In most states, if you’re a K–12 administrator trying to make the transition to digital content, you’ll quickly hit a bureaucratic wall. All of your state’s education financial systems are likely geared to adopting and purchasing just one textbook a year. The states then keep that book in the schools for a 7-to-10-year adoption cycle. Simply put, if the state buys a math textbook in 2008, it will remain in the classrooms until 2015. The adoption system is a lucrative one for the textbook publishers: California, Florida, and Texas, just three of the “adoption states,” together account for roughly 25 percent of the K–12 textbook market.

“In the late ’90s, we were talking to a couple of progressive and enthusiastic superintendents,” says Chesser, “but they couldn’t justify the spending on infrastructure.” For example, how can a school system justify buying individual laptops for students when it would take another decade before the state could adopt new digital content? “That continues to this day: the digital hurdle,” says Chesser. “It’s not impossible to get past, but it’s there.”

Hurdle #2: Truly ubiquitous laptop computing
When the dream of a laptop on every student’s desk becomes a reality, digital content will be in high demand—and viewed as a necessity. But unlike higher-ed and private K–12 institutions, where students buy their own laptops, many public-school systems cannot afford a robust computing environment. Nonetheless, things may be looking up for K–12 public schools. “We crossed a tipping point a couple of years ago,” says Chesser. “The machines have just become so much less expensive. They are now a cost-effective option.” More administrators are able to purchase a base level of computing that’s available to everyone as well as whatever device infrastructure is necessary.

Frank Lyman, the executive vice president of marketing at CourseSmart, stresses the importance of bringing publishers together and using common technology standards to help get e-textbooks into the classroom. CourseSmart’s publisher coalition, for example, publishes electronic versions of approximately one third of the books used in college classes today. But first you have to get the technology into students’ hands, says Lyman.

“I worked at John Wiley and Sons, and we had an exciting product with an interactive format,” Lyman recalls. “Students would take a class where that product was used and have such an exciting experience. They’d go back next semester, and the chance that they’d have another class with that same type of product was almost zero. There was no momentum; it never built up,” he says. “Students couldn’t expect that they would always have that option.”

Hurdle #3: Wider adoption of distance-learning teaching models
Some states, with the assistance of technology, lately have adopted teaching models that would have been deemed wildly experimental just a few years ago. Florida, for example, has embraced distance learning in its high schools. “There have been more models like that falling into place, especially centered around distance learning,” Chesser says, “which obviously lends itself to the advantages of digital content—creating study groups on the fly, that sort of thing.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the largest districts in the country, has been looking into relatively small-scale uses for digital content, involving a few thousand students. But Themy Sparangis, the district’s chief technology director, is hesitant to characterize it as a move toward e-textbooks. “Just the term ‘e-textbooks’ kind of sends the wrong message,” he says. “It sounds as if all we’re talking about is taking the actual printed page and putting it on a computer. If that’s the case, all we have is a very expensive binding system for a book.” He adds, “There’s a lot more use of these kinds of digital media as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, traditional textbooks.”

One way to take advantage of digital textbook content is to combine it with other electronic initiatives, such as course management systems. In 2005, Charles County (MD) Public Schools began a district-wide project to digitize not only teachers’ textbooks, but also lesson plans, worksheets, handouts, quizzes, tests, and other materials, using software from Ingram-owned VitalSource. “We couldn’t just throw laptops in there without any instructional material,” says Bijaya Devkota, the district’s chief information officer. “So why don’t we just start digitizing the textbooks, get the rights from the publishers, and have our teachers work over the summer to get all the lesson plans online?”

Paul Draper, the director of digital marketing strategy at Holt Online Learning, part of print-textbook publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston, says that integrating course management systems and the textbook content is key to making e-content a success—that is, combining the textbooks with ways to perform assessments on students’ progress.

Draper points out that the proliferation of course management systems in higher education a decade ago sped up e-textbook development in colleges and universities, and it may well do the same in the K–12 space. “Publishers had to quickly come up to speed on how to deliver course content, including textbook materials, to higher-ed institutions that had, say, a Blackboard installation,” Draper says. Today the vast majority of these institutions have some kind of course management system, and many K–12 districts are following suit.

Customized content, too, is something e-textbook publishers should embrace, Draper says. “If [instructors] want to hide Chapter 3, because they’re not going to cover Chapter 3, or if they want to add a section, then they should be able to do that,” he says. “There’s no obligation on the part of the teachers to use only our resources. In fact, generally teachers don’t.”
Ultimately, the move to digital texbooks will most likely be gradual, rather than a sudden leap. Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division, thinks that e-textbooks are not likely to replace print anytime soon. “I get so many calls asking, ‘When’s everything going to go digital?’—as if there’s a date and time. It’s just not going to be that way,” he says. “There are a lot of technology companies, and a lot of publishers, who portray this as an all-or-nothing debate: either it’s print, or it’s digital. What we’re going to see is a mix of different media. There are some activities that are just fine being tackled with a good old book.”

Sparangis of Los Angeles Unified agrees, saying that the answer to e-textbook adoption in K–12 districts may well lie in a more gradual approach. “I don’t believe it should be an either/or scenario,” he says. “Here are the resources in front of us, and here are things that students need to know. Naturally, technology and digital media are going to be part of the discussion. We are going to have to employ the technology that is shaping the world. But how do we use the tools in front of us?”

E-textbooks: Thinking Ahead
Here are a few of the more interesting e-textbook products out there

OverDrive School Download Library:
Cleveland, Ohio-based OverDrive, perhaps best known for its widespread distribution of e-books to 7,500 public libraries worldwide, maintains an online library of about 600 books geared toward K-12 students, from abstract algebra workbooks to William Golding’s often-taught novel Lord of the Flies. It may provide a way for schools to experiment with e-content through their own school libraries.

Wikibooks : Headed up by the Wikimedia Foundation (the people who brought you Wikipedia), Wikibooks was created in 2003 as an online repository of educational textbooks that anyone can add to or edit. As with Wikipedia, the content is monitored and refereed by thousands of editors around the world. So far, more than 31,000 textbook pages have been added.

eTouchBook : Cincinnati, Ohio-based Somatic Digital has recently made prototype versions of its notebook-like eTouchBook available to publishers. The company claims that its product will allow users to press pictures and words on a printed ink-and-paper page in order to retrieve digital content, or even launch e-mail, instant messengers, or other computer applications.

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