The End of Textbooks

Science Explored | Published  October 09, 2012

We are in the midst of a digital transition.  Wireless internet starting becoming popular in the mid-1990s; today, we see wireless hot spots everywhere as we scan for an open one on our laptops and phones.  Despite this transition, we are behind many other developed countries that boast citywide wireless systems with even faster speeds than our own.  The United States needs to speed up its digital transformation if it hopes to keep up with countries like South Korea who not only are more “wired” than us but also outperforming us on standards-based testing.  A more wired country means better access to information, which education could certainly benefit from.

A week ago Arne Duncan, U.S. Education Secretary, affirmed the need to make this transition saying, “Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete.”  Our digital transition does not mean digitizing photocopies of textbooks – that would be like trying to pass microform newspaper articles off as “digital newspapers” today.  Duncan’s view of a digital textbook is far more robust.  Digital textbooks would be interactive by providing a means for students to address misunderstandings with videos, simulations, and assessments imbedded into the online text.  A student enrolled in high school biology, for example, could clarify her misunderstanding of cellular division on an end-of-chapter quiz by choosing to watch a step-by-step video, manipulating an interactive simulation, or perhaps connecting with her peers and teacher using integrated social media.  Meanwhile, schools would have the benefit of buying curriculum “a la carte,” meaning they could take the best from each publisher’s digital textbook to assemble their own rather than collecting piles of dusty textbooks because each one had only a few valuable chapters. 

Easy?  Unfortunately, a few roadblocks lie ahead.  One huge elephant in the room impedes this much-needed transition:  funding.  Schools are seeing more and more cuts to their budgets.  Even if digital textbooks are cheaper than their print counterpart, many schools lack the money to get adequate internet systems in place to make using them practical.  Still, the cost of a school-wide wired system piddles in comparison to providing every student a device able to deliver the content of the digital textbooks.  Financial worries such as these have lead many schools to embrace BYOT, or “bring your own technology,” policies in order to make learning with digital textbooks possible.  Schools would also expect to pay out for teacher development to make sure these new tools and technologies are used in the best possible ways.  In the end, this adds up to a pile of cash that in today’s economic climate is shrinking rapidly for schools. 

On the other end, publishers may suffer from textbook piracy as digital content becomes more readily available.  Bit torrents are likely to rise up that would allow for non-licensed downloading of digital textbooks much like what happened in the music industry.  This could cause an artificial increase in price for digital textbooks as companies try to recoup their loses in piracy, and even knock smaller digital textbooks providers out of the running all together.

Despite the potential benefits and problems, the transition is imminent.  Duncan is confident that “this has to be where we go as a country.”  Whether the transition is a glorious or grinding revolution has yet to be seen.


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