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Feds Look To Accelerate E-Textbook Adoption with 'Digital Textbook Playbook'

FCC Chairman Genachowski Wednesday called for digital textbooks for every American student within the next five years.

The federal government is looking to bring digital textbooks to all American students within the next five years. As part of the plan, the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Department of Education (ED) Wednesday afternoon released the new "Digital Textbook Playbook," a guide designed to help schools overcome the challenges associated with the shift to e-textbooks.

The "Playbook" is the product of the Digital Textbook Collaborative, a group put together by ED and the FCC and composed primarily of technology companies and textbook publishers, along with two education organizations, one school district, and one university.

The Imperative for E-Textbook Adoption
According to information released by the FCC, "Playbook" was issued to help accelerate digital textbook adoption in schools, a growing imperative in light of changing education priorities and the rapid advancement of education technology.

"Digital textbooks are one of the cornerstones of digital learning," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in remarks made at Wednesday's Digital Learning Day Town Hall in Washington, D.C. "When we talk about transitioning to digital textbooks, we're not just talking about giving students e-readers so they no longer have to carry around backpacks filled with 50 pounds of often out-of-date textbooks. We're talking about students having interactive learning devices that can offer lessons personalized to their learning style and level, and enable real-time feedback to parents, teachers, or tutors. Imagine a student who has trouble doing his geometry homework; the digital textbook automatically inserts a supplemental lesson. Imagine a teacher who has instant access to the results of a pop quiz; she can immediately see that four of her students didn't understand the concept of photosynthesis and is able to offer an extra lesson."

He said that while some e-textbook initiatives have been undertaken in the United States--notably in Florida, which has mandated digital textbooks in all schools statewide by the 2015-2016 school year, many are being left behind.

"We've seen digital textbooks adopted in pockets around the country, but adoption is not widespread and too skewed to wealthier areas," Genachowski said. "Meanwhile, too many students still have textbooks that are seven to 10 years old. And some students are using history books that don't even cover 9/11. It's not just the content of textbooks that needs updating it's the concept. We often talk about how technology has changed everything, but static, hardcover textbooks are what I used in school, what my parents used, what their parents used and so on. We spend $7 billion a year on textbooks in this country, but digital textbooks--this massive innovation--remain the exception, not the rule. We can do better. And I envision a society spending less on textbooks, but getting more out of them. We all win if the players in the digital learning ecosystem--including publishers, device manufacturers, platform providers, Internet service providers, schools--work together to accelerate the adoption of digital textbooks. If they work together to address the obstacles of broadband deployment and adoption, content development, interoperability and device costs."

The obstacles, however, are many and include, according to Genachowski, poor interoperability, high device costs, insufficient development of educational materials in electronic format, and, for as much as a third of the United States, inadequate broadband infrastructure or access.

Nevertheless, he called for rapid change: "Today, I want to challenge everyone in the space--companies, government officials, schools and teachers--to do their part to make sure that every student in America has a digital textbook in the next five years."

The 'Digital Textbook Playbook'
The "Playbook" is designed to help ease that transition.The 67-page document provides advice for educators and administrators in four key areas:

  • Planning and leadership during the transition, with links to case studies and exemplars;
  • Ensuring connectivity at schools, including calculating bandwidth requirements, moving to the cloud, connecting classrooms, securing the network, and funding infrastructure upgrades;
  • Ensuring connectivity outside of school, including cost management, planning curriculum for mobile access, and adding WiFi to school buses; and
  • Adopting the right device for the purpose, with suggested considerations and a look at the pros and cons of BYOD versus school-supplied devices.

To help schools determine their bandwidth requirements, a new online calculator for educators was launched at etoolkit.org.

Corporations involved in the development of the "Digital Textbook Playbook" included Apple, Aruba Networks, AT&T, Blackboard, CentralEd's e-Bookroom Initiative, Dell, Discovery Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HP, Intel, McGraw Hill, Microsoft, Mobile Beacon, Mobile Citizen, Pearson, Qualcomm, Samsung, Scholastic, Sprint, Verizon, and Wireless Generation.

Education-focused organizations included the One-to-One Institute and the Software and Information Industry Association.

Education institutions involved in the collective included Freed-Hardeman University and San Diego Unified School District.

The complete Digital Textbook Playbook can be accessed online or downloaded in PDF format from the FCC's site.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .