Digital Publishing :: Out of Print


Traditional textbook publishers are having to adjust to a changing market, as K-12 educators show a growing interest in digital content.

Digital PublishingWhen Anita Givens first began teaching elementary school students to use computers back in the mid-1980s, there were few digital learning materials available and little demand for electronic textbooks. In fact, parents and educators worried that the advent of computers in schools would result in students' spending too much time in the companyof computer monitors, and not enough time with real books.

"Many people were saying, ‘We don't want kids sitting in front of a computer all day at school,' as though they were television sets," recalls Givens, who serves the Texas Education Agency as the senior director for instructional materials and educational technology. "Look at how many of us now sit in front of a computer all day at work. It's how we do business. It's how we communicate through e-mail. It's how we accomplish tasks using the web. And it's important to leverage that technology-that now common experience- so it's a seamless part of the learning experience for students."

A lot has changed in 20 years. Teachers, parents, and especially students are embracing electronic educational content today in growing numbers. Givens' agency, for one, has made deployment of digital learning tools and content a priority. The TEA has adopted electronic instructional materials and educational technologies from a range of publishers and "depositories"- which store and distribute instructional materials for publishing companies-including Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, Pearson Scott Foresman, Harcourt, and Classroom Connect, among others, and from websites such as The influx of alternative digital content has actually altered Texas' formal definition of "textbook" to include electronic media. This reconsideration and redefining of the textbook and how itrelates to teaching is occurring across K-12.

The consensus definition, however, is still aborning. What now can correctly be called a textbook? For some, printed materials scanned as a PDF file qualify; for others, a certain level of interactivity and even multimedia is required. If little else, there is agreement on this: It's no longer printed pages ina bound book.

"We define an e-book as a digital book that is available for download, reading, and printing from a connected PC, Mac, or notebook- and for a variety of our materials, PDAs and smart phones," says Steve Potash, CEO of digital content provider OverDrive."When you talk about ane-book or a digital book,with the exception of digitalaudio books, you are stilltalking about text, aboutreading."

Digital book file formats vary, Potash points out. A PDF file, for example, is usually searchable, and the reader can sometimes apply highlighting and annotations from the PC. Some digital books are readable from a cell phone or PDA running Adobe's Acrobat eBook or the Mobipocket Reader. Digital audio books can be downloaded to an MP3 player. And Adobe eBooks have built-in textto- speech capabilities so that a reader may have the book read aloud by thecomputer.

I don't think teachers want to stand up at the chalkboard and lecture anymore. It's not where they want to be these days.
- Ken Tong, Ballard High School

"This is disruptive technology," Potash says. "It's changing education in fundamental ways."

Givens elaborates. "If we're going to prepare our students to live and work in the 21st century, we have to make sure that they are comfortable with 21st-century tools," she says. "They become the most proficient with these tools when they are connected to content, when they are an integral part of the core curriculum areas-language arts and reading, math, science, and social studies-across the spectrum."

More Than Letters on a Screen

Mark Bretl agrees that a revolution is afoot with the arrival of electronic textbooks in K-12 environments, but he finds it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for PDF files. Bretl believes that interactivity and multimedia are the keys to this new incarnation of the textbook, which the founders of Kinetic Books, where Bretl is vice president, call, aptly, "kinetic textbooks." The Seattle-based company develops and publishes a line of interactive textbooks built from the ground up, directlyfor use with computers.

"When we first sat down and thought about textbooks," Bretl says, "we asked ourselves, If we put this thing on a computer, what can we really do with it? We concluded that you can do a lot more than put letters on a screen." Kinetic textbooks combine a complete course of instructional text with simulations, animations, audio, video, and multiple self-assessmenttools for students, among other features.

Company co-founder Bruce Jacobsen, formerly the general manager in Microsoft's Kids/Games Business Unit-and before that, president of RealNetworks-retired from the software business in 1998. A year or so later, he began working as a volunteer physics tutor at Seattle's Garfield High School. Watching physics students struggle with the subject inspired him tostart the company.

To date, Kinetic Books has produced three levels of introductory physics textbooks, and a math course is in the works. The products are delivered on a CD or through online installation. Both options are compatible with Windows- and Macbased computers. "At this point in the evolution," Bretl says,"we're still dealing with early adopters, teachers who say, ‘Hey,this can help me get my students involved better than the print text.' I believe the real driver in this market is that teacher youwould have loved to have in school, the one who goes the extramile to make the class interesting. Those are the people whoare picking up on our products the fastest."

Putting E-Content IN OVERDRIVE

A pioneering digital publisher has entered the K-12 market with a downloadable library of virtual and audio books.

Steve Potash

Steve Potash

"You and I might find it daunting to read Huck Finn on a cellphone," Steve Potash says, "but for kids, they're not put off bythe little screen."

At least that's what Potash is banking on, as he brings his digital publishing business, OverDrive, into the K-12 arena. The company has for many years provided digital textbooks to higher education, where, he says, on some campuses the curriculum has shifted significantly to electronic content, but only recently entered the K-12 market with a new service: the OverDrive School Download Library. The service, which went live this past January, delivers e-book and digital audio book downloads from a company-hosted website. The library comes with a core collection of 740 "units," both e-books and audio books. "We have the books on the assigned reading lists, the classics, and the learning guides in multiple formats," Potash says.

Potash has been involved in e-publishing since the early 1980s. He developed interactive media products for consumers of trade, legal, and reference titles-things like interactive legal forms and e-books-on disc and CD. He also served as president of the Open eBook Forum, which is now the International Digital Publishing Forum, a standards body and trade association for digital-book application vendors. In 1986, Potash founded the Cleveland, OH-based OverDrive, which provides downloadable books, audio books, music, and video to public libraries in the United States and abroad.

The Lakeshore Northeast Ohio Computer Association partnered with OverDrive to become the first organization in the country to offer the contents of the company's School Download Library to its members. The LNOCA School Download Library now provides nearly 150,000 students-as well as teachers and parents- from more than 50 public and private school districts in the Greater Cleveland area with access to around 740 titles organized by grade level and age. All a kid needs is an internet connection and a student library card. The library's titles can be listened to or read on laptops or desktop PCs, Pocket PCs, PDAs, smart phones, and MP3 players.

Among LNOCA's member districts is the suburban Shaker Heights City Schools.With 5,600 K-12 students, Shaker Heights prides itself on supporting technology initiatives and providing reading materials in all modalities, says Kathy Fredrick, the district's director of library, media, and instructional technology. So far, according to Fredrick, the MP3 player seems to be the book-delivery platform of choice among Shaker Heights students. "Some of the upper-level libraries have some of this material on cassette," she says, "so it's a format they are familiar with."

One of the most practical features of the system, Fredrick says, is its ability to provide virtually unlimited copies of texts. "Our students at the high school level now have access to some of the ACT/SAT test materials. In this format, we have endless copies to give them."

Fredrick believes that the move to digital formats doesn't, as some people fear, portend the demise of the book. "We've seen through libraries that circulation has gone up, in many cases, even as people were beginning to use the new formats. Teachers get queasy about the notion of students without textbooks. But once people see what [the technology] can actually do for them, they come around to thinking that it's a good thing."

Potash says it's district librarians like Fredrick who have been the most influential fans of his company's services. In fact, librarians, he says, have led the way in most digitalcontent innovations, from books-on-tape to internet access."They understand what material students, teachers, and other patrons are looking for," he says, "and they know how to best introduce new forms of reading. Librarians really have their finger on the pulse of this market."

Teachers like Ken Tong, for example. Tong is a science instructor at Seattle's Ballard High School, where he teaches chemistry, physics, and digital electronics. At about the same time that Givens' Texas elementary school kids were wowing parents and teachers with their computer skills, Tong was pioneering the use of computers for science and math education in the Northwest. "I remember when the overhead projector was considered cutting-edge technology," he says."A lot of the early teaching software was for mathematics. Ithink it's a subject that is easily translated to computers. Butthe selection was limited to spreadsheets and word processors-nothing like we have today."


Interactive printed material goes by many names: digital books, virtual books, electronic books, and e-books.

Tong actually began working with the Kinetic Books physics material three years ago, before it was commercially available, or even finished. "My students and I took it for a test drive," he says. "They liked it, and so did I. The material is comprehensive and based on established physics texts used by many colleges. It impressed me as a complete system-textbook, lab, and online homework system. I don't have to go out and buy separate pieces of software."

Physics textbook publishers may be the most aggressive print-based publishers moving to provide digital options, Tong says."They are now putting things online and comingto us with all kinds of digital resources forteachers. I think some academic subjects areprobably more naturally adaptable to digitalmedia. But I also think companies like Kineticare getting their attention."

Tong says digital textbooks have allowed him to change his teaching methods. "I used to lecture for most of the class period," he says. "The effectiveness of that approach was really questionable. I don't think teachers want to stand up at the chalkboard and lecture anymore. It's not where they want to be these days. Now I start class by posing a question on the topic I want to talk about for the day. Then I take 15 to 20 minutes to go over the basic topics and demonstrations. And then the students get on the computer and start taking more notes from the [online] textbook."

Moving From Print to Digital

One of the largest and oldest textbook publishers, Pearson Scott Foresman, is making the transition to the digital age rather smoothly- and not with math books, says Bob Harris, the company's regional vice president for the Pacific region. Last summer, the company made a bit of history by redefining the way social studies is taught in elementary schoolsin California.

That's when seven of the largest districts within the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted Scott Foresman's History-Social Science for California program. Developed exclusively for California, the program blends printed text with digital- and activities-based instructional methods to provide a complete digital curriculum, including online books, video, and interactive learning and assessment tools-all of which focus on state standards. The program is also available in Spanish, and it includes tools that support English language learners.

"All of our [digital] programs in the future will have core instructional content and training for teachers," Harris says. Getting this kind of thing approved for statewide adoption can be a long process. The company actually began developing the program in 2004. In late 2006, the California State Board of Education approved and implemented the program as part of California's adoption of new history-social science instructional materials for K-8 students. This year the company will present its new K-6 math program to the state's evaluation committee, starting the whole process all over again.

"It's fair to say that we're all in a transition period," says Harris."Until recently, the schools haven't had quality instructional programs that are core to what they are required to teach. What they've had are more like ancillary components that supplement what they do, but few materials that are an integral part of what they teach every day. We're helping schools to have a reason to make the changeover."

The key to this transition from print to digital media for Scott Foresman is the depth of the parent company's engineering assets, Harris says. As a division of Pearson Education, the 100-year-old textbook company has access to the cutting-edge technical expertise of the staff at Pearson Digital Learning, which handles the company's digital content business.

Harris observes that traditional textbook publishers do tend to be cautious when it comes to unproven innovations. "It's a huge investment to go into something like this with the chance that no one will want it, or that it won't be approved by the state," he says. "So some publishers have been slower to move in this direction. We've sort of broken the ground, so other companies are less likely to be fearful because they've seen our success."

Another issue causing some traditional textbook publishers to drag their feet, says OverDrive's Potash, is the concern about copyright protections. Potash has been at the forefront of digital copyright issues, both as president of the International Digital Publishing Forum and as a provider of digital rights management solutions at Over- Drive. He says reassuring authors and publishers that their rights are safe in the digital world is essential to the development of the K-12 market.

"The textbook publishing business is an established and conservative business, and they're worried about copyright issues," Potash says. "Everyone is going to have to address that issue. At OverDrive, every book that is downloaded from our site and similar sites that we host has the associated copyright protection service. The kids can download it, but if they try to e-mail the file to their friends or throw it on a thumb drive and transfer it, it won't open. It will only open on the PC of the student who logged in to download it. It's these types of protections that will lead to more curriculum coming into this kind of channel."

One development helping to motivate print-and-paper publishers into moving their products into the digital age is a new generation of teachers who are quite at home with the technology."The older teachers who may not have been as comfortablewith computers are getting ready to retire," says Harris. "Thenext generation of teachers is very comfortable using this technologyas a teaching tool. They're digital natives."

Another driver in this market is tight textbook budgets. The Texas Education Agency, for example, provides free textbooks to all elementary, middle, and high school students in the state. With 4.5 million students, that's a lot of ink and paper."It's an increasingly significant investment," Givens says."We're looking for more cost-effective ways of providing current,relevant content. Electronic instruction materials can bemore cost-effective while delivering much more currency thantraditional print materials."

But don't expect digital content to completely displace paper-and-ink textbooks any time soon, says Givens. The Texas plan, for example, is what she calls "a blended approach" that combines printed textbooks with digital content."Rather than trying to replace all of the print materialsout there and do everything electronically, we think there'sthe right mix that needs to be put in place."

OverDrive CEO Potash agrees: "We don't claim that e-books replace print. At least not right away. But one of our slogans is, ‘Digital books for digital kids.' The world is changing, the students are changing, and we do believe this form is going to gain more and more acceptance over time."

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John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

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