Digital Textbooks, OER, and More from Digital Learning Day

By 02/03/2012

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Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski made the Obama Administration’s big announcement at Wednesday’s Digital Learning Day festivities: the release of a “digital textbook playbook” to support the goal of ensuring that every student has a digital textbook in the next five years. The playbook is a helpful resource, the federal involvement helps to legitimize these efforts, and the FCC’s initiatives to increase broadband access are notable (in particular, the movement towards allowing schools to provide access to students outside of school hours). But since textbooks and other educational content are controlled at the state and local levels, this is mostly a bully pulpit exercise.

Still, the chatter in various social media about the announcement extend two faulty themes that needlessly limit educational technology discussions.

The first misguided frame, expressed by Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio in USA Today, is whether technology, in this case digital textbooks, is a “magic bullet.” Pondiscio is right: Of course it’s not and anybody who claims so is foolish. But debating this point gets us nowhere.

What’s most important to understand about the digital textbook effort is that it’s an opportunity to open up a large amount of existing public money that has been locked into use by a very small and closed set of publishers. Opening up classrooms to new technologies in no way guarantees that textbooks or digital instructional materials will be better. But, it does provide the opportunity to shift power to educators, offering the possibility for not only more customization by teachers, but also access to a greater array of better materials. And, smaller publishers, including those who offer free content, such as Core Knowledge, may finally have a chance to enter classrooms based on the strength of their content, rather than their distribution and sales teams.

The second faulty frame is the conspiratorial suspicion of nefarious intent: any technology initiative is just a cover for private profit-seeking. But let’s be serious. We wouldn’t be having this discussion around school modernization. Construction companies make a lot of money on educational projects. We understand though, that this is a reason to exercise strong oversight of public funds. It’s not a reason to oppose modernizing crumbling facilities.

In reality, opposition to digital textbooks cements corporate control of instructional materials. This is about technology-driven industry change. Again, our K-12 schools already spend billions each year on textbooks — almost all purchased from the same small set of publishers. New companies are surely aiming at these dollars, just as Google, Facebook, and Craigslist have siphoned off newspaper ad revenues. And, this industry change also opens the doors for open educational resources (OER) that can be freely shared and modified. This is the real battle, between new and old ways of doing business, open and closed, as seen in the recent debate over SOPA. If there’s a critique here, it’s that there was little sign of the OER community in either the FCC’s announcement or the “Digital Textbook Collaborative” that it convened.

Two more things you may have missed:

-Bill Tucker

Comment on this article
  • Lisa R says:

    One big question I have about this is what will be the enduring cost to schools to maintain the electronic curriculum.

    A book’s content may become dated. But short of flood or fire, the content is accessable just by opening the cover.

    But access to online or electronic content may rely on maintaining a seat license, paying an annual subscription or even putting out for an entire new “edition”, even if the school is content with an older edition.

    That doesn’t even consider the impact of competing supporting software needs (and the cost of maintaining them. For example, we were contentedly using an older version of language software, only to have the Student Management Software stop working after updating Java in order to run a brige design simulator. Alas, because the language software is two iterations old, it is no longer supported.

    All of this is without even considering the impact of the cost of the actual hardware. Do low income families have computers at home and internet access to utilize the electronic resources? Does the district have to pay to provide laptops or ereaders? And if the economic situation of the students is such that the hardware is being issued, then what happens when it is lost or damaged?

    When a school has budget problems, then can retrench and keep a textbook a while longer. In some subjects likemath, language arts and history, that might even be of benefit given how frentic some of the contemporary textbooks are. Does a school choosing to move extensively into electronic delivery methods lock itself into a high budget item just to maintain that access?

    Our local district tried to cut costs last year, by no longer paying for Advanced Placement test fees for students in AP classes (students enrolled in AP classes are required to take the AP exams as part of the AP contract that the student signs with the school). There was a lawsuit forcing them to maintain the fee underwriting or drop the test requirement. I think there could be similar legal tests to schools that required electronic texts but tried to get families to pay fees to cover the readers or access fees.

  • Bill Tucker says:

    I agree and appreciate the detailed explanation of these critical issues. The concepts behind digital textbooks may be great, but if the practical application is too difficult or costly, they just won’t meet their potential.

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