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Goodbye to heavy backpacks?: Hello, e-textbooks

E-textbooks may soon lessen a student's burden

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 1:44 p.m. MDT

The next school icon to be tossed on the education bone heap may be the hardcover textbook. Slide rules and typewriters have long been extinct, and chalkboards have become an endangered species threatened by interactive whiteboards. (Shutterstock) The next school icon to be tossed on the education bone heap may be the hardcover textbook. Slide rules and typewriters have long been extinct, and chalkboards have become an endangered species threatened by interactive whiteboards. (Shutterstock)

The next school icon to be tossed on the education bone heap may be the hardcover textbook. Slide rules and typewriters have long been extinct, and chalkboards have become an endangered species threatened by interactive whiteboards.

Someday soon, students might carry a single digital tablet instead of lugging around a backpack full of books.

Along with reducing backaches, the shift to e-textbooks holds bright promise for decreasing education costs and improving learning. The United States spends more than $7 billion a year on textbooks, but many students are still stuck with old texts full of outdated material. Schools could save $250 per student each year by making the move to digital texts, according to the Federal Communications Commission, and the interactive e-books can be updated continuously instead of being replaced.

Stars aligning

Earlier this year, Apple announced a partnership with the three major textbook publishers in the U.S. to develop interactive textbooks for its iPad digital tablet. Within five years, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants U.S. schools to convert exclusively to digital textbooks, citing the need to keep up academically with other nations — like Korea, where digital learning environments are being adapted at a quick pace.

"What we are seeing is an opportunity to replace textbooks with something better — learning tools that are more colorful, exciting, intuitive and interactive," said Bob Slavin, an education researcher at Maryland's Johns Hopkins University.

But, home access to the Internet and digital devices for all students will be sticking points in making the switch, Slavin added.

Apple says its digital textbooks are designed for the way students learn today. They provide a full-screen experience filled with interactive diagrams, photos and videos, self-correcting chapter reviews and search options. Partners in creating the e-textbooks are Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw Hill and Pearson, the three major K-12 textbook publishers in the United States.

The digital textbooks let students learn by surfing through content, clicking for more information on topics that capture their interest. That's the way kids learn best, Slavin said.

Take a look

At the Apple website, you can see demos of e-text interactive features. A map of Mozambique's Goronogosa National Park responds as a student touches various areas, showing photos and giving written details about riverine valleys, alluvial fans, flood plains and dry midlands.

A biology e-book's section on leaf structure lets students swipe text to highlight definitions and important passages. That material gets stored in the form of flashcards for later study. A diagram of leaf structure zooms in for microscopic study. Self-correcting chapter reviews in the e-texts let students test their knowledge by labeling images, answering multiple choice questions and matching image thumbnails to maps definitions or maps.

Students will be able to connect with other learners through online learning groups, Slavin said. And, teachers can project e-textbook videos and photos onto the digital whiteboards that are replacing their chalkboards, then "write" on them from control panels on their desks. The e-texts will make it easier for teachers to individualize instruction, too.

"Why would you hold everyone to doing the same thing, if that's not what they need?" Slavin asked, touting the power of digital textbooks to personalize education for fast or slow learners.

As digital material is incorporated in classrooms and homework assignments, the role of teachers will change. They won't need to stand before students reciting material that can be covered more effectively in other ways, making time for more important work.

"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.

"It's very challenging, because they all support different file formats,” Busnach said. "The whole issue of industry standards has not been fully defined yet."

Even if districts end up providing classroom sets of matching digital tablets, it's not clear which format they will choose. Another question is whether the big companies that publish hardcover K-12 textbooks will dominate the e-textbook world, or be outpaced by tech-savvy newcomers.

The Internet already abounds with online lessons geared for various subjects and ages, created by digital start-up companies such as Coursera and Khan Academy, and many of these lessons are free. Some could morph into textbook replacements, too, said education technology writer Audrey Watters.

Slavin said digital start-up companies unfettered by attachments to printing presses and tree harvesting could prove more adept than traditional publishing companies at making the almost-inevitable transition to e-textbooks. That could leave hardcover textbook publishers scrambling for a profit model — a scenario some have compared to the plight of print-based journalism. But Busnach doesn't think his company will be left behind.

"We are embracing the digital world as much as anyone," he said. "We see it as an opportunity not only for us as a company, but as a way for more people to learn in a lifelong way. We advocate for that. We believe in that."

Traditional publishing companies offer advantages new companies don't have, Busnach said: A ready-made system of content development aligned to grade standards and based on broad research over time, conducted by many experts.

"We're not naïve," he said. "We know there will be plenty of disruptors. The value we bring will continue to be valuable to our customers, and we will continue to be strong content providers in the future."

Email: cbaker@desnews.com

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