Another Digital Divide Looms

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Districts want digitally based content-publishers say obstaclesstand in the way. Can we work to bring the two sides together?

Geoffrey H. FletcherAS OUR WRITER John K. Watersrelates in his article this month on digitalpublishing ("Out of Print," page 30 of our magazine),there's a race on in the K-12 world,away from traditional printed textbooksand toward digitally based content. Iwouldn't call it a sprint-more an ultramarathon.But enough leading andgood-sized school districts are makingit clear to publishers that they are nolonger satisfied with receiving only printedbooks; they would like the contentavailable digitally as well.

This shift has not come without problems, however, as there is considerable consternation on the side of the more traditional book publishers. Their unease was evident in a panel discussion at the recent Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) Ed Tech Industry Summit, as well as being a noticeable undercurrent in other presentations and in hallway discussions.

When I was with the Texas Education Agency, I talked to publishers about the potential of digital content. At that time, the usual response I received was one that politely asked what I was imbibing to come up with such an idea. Today, the response is far different. Rather than dismissing the notion of digital publishing as the ramblings of a daffy bureaucrat, they are taking it seriously-but coming up with a number of reasons as to why it isn't feasible: Such as:

  • Lack of authorization. Many of their contracts do not permit publishers to digitally distribute the content they receive from authors and photographers, even if they wanted to.
  • No business model. Neither publishers, adoption states, nor districts have a business model on how to distribute portions of a book. Can a book be paid for by the chapter? Should there be a subscription model instead of a purchasing model?
  • Technical concerns. How does a publisher identify, tag, and provide the content to the district? By the chapter? By the paragraph? By the photo?

Another area of contention involves what publishers consider a lack of understanding of how they develop their products. As articulated well at the SIIA meeting by Scholastic Education's Midian Kurland at a panel titled "Developing Content for Compatibility," many publishers see themselves as providers of curriculum, not merely content.

Publishers put their content together with a certain scope and in a thoughtfully chosen sequence based upon significant research that has helped them determine what has the best chance of making students successful. If this curriculum is allowed to be chopped up and used in any old fashion, it will lose value, since most teachers do not have the research background, knowledge, or time to create anywhere near as solid a curriculum as publishers do.

These are not small problems-and I haven't even touched upon concerns that are held by state bureaucrats, district textbook coordinators, and principals who want every teacher in a subject area to be on the same page. But the push toward digital content is inevitable, so to tackle these problems, we all just need to reason together. What are the chances of that?

-Geoffrey H. Fletcher, Editorial director

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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