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Goodbye to heavy backpacks?: Hello, e-textbooks

E-textbooks may soon lessen a student's burden

Published: Saturday, Dec. 22 2012 1:20 p.m. MST

"Teachers will do what only teachers can do — make content come alive, individualize learning, and engage kids with each other," Slavin said. "Let the computers do what they can do best in terms of presenting educational concepts."

The technology gap

Though some of the digital textbooks produced by major manufacturers don't require Internet access, they must be loaded onto computers or digital tablets, such as iPads or Kindles. If students can bring them from home, schools will have to provide them.

School infrastructures will need modifying, too. To take full advantage of e-textbooks, schools will need enough electrical outlets in each classroom for many devices to be charged at once, and sufficient bandwidth to take advantage of online textbook options. And, teachers and administrators will need to be trained to use the new technology.

Those expenses can be justified, the FCC's report said. A traditional learning environment, including traditional textbooks, paper, technology and connectivity, costs an estimated $3,871 per student per year. An updated learning environment, including digital learning content, devices, technology and connectivity, costs an estimated $3,621 per student per year — and that cost is expected to decline.

But, online learning requires Internet access at school and at home for maximum results. About two-thirds of Americans don't have Internet access at home, according to the Federal Communications Commission, but the number who do is growing.

"Access has to be universal," Slavin said. "Even if there is only one kid who doesn't have a computer, you've got a problem that has to be solved."

When student access to computers and the Internet nears 80 percent, school districts will find it more cost-effective to provide the necessary tools for kids who lack them than to purchase expensive classroom sets of textbooks for every school subject, Slavin predicts. When that happens, e-textbook learning geared for the digital generation will take off, he said.

Publishing industry challenges

The U.S. is approaching a "tipping point" in its move toward digital textbooks, said Michael Busnach, vice president of product marketing and digital solutions for textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, though he expects the tip to happen gradually.

Traditional publishing companies have no intention of being left behind as the switch to digital texbooks proceed, Busnach said.

The promise that e-textbooks will reduce costs for districts still remains elusive. The average price of a K-12 textbook is $65, according to American Association of Publishers data. So far, the e-textbooks the "Big Three" publishing companies are producing with Apple haven't lowered that cost for consumers.

"We are in the business of creating passionate and curious learners, and digital interactivity is a great way to do that," Busnach said. "It comes at a price though — it's expensive to develop digital content."

Publishing companies geared to the needs of the print industry have to invest in digital technology, and hire workers who can create and link up the exciting new features that make e-textbooks so promising, Busnach said. Right now, the cost of producing digital textbooks is similar to printing traditional texts. With so much up-front investment needed, savings won't come until later.

"We are hoping we get high adoption rates of the technology, which allows us to scale our pricing so that digital options are lower in cost than print options," Busnach said.

That won't happen overnight, though. And, it will take time for districts to solve the problem of universal access for all students. The lack of standardization in the tablet industry is another barrier to e-textbook adoption, Busnach said. Although many students can bring their own digital devices to school, the result is a room-full of iPads, Kindles and Androids.

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