Thinking All Wrong About Digital

Consider this pull quote from an article titled Are We Thinking About Digital All Wrong?:

I strongly believe that describing digital as a tool diminishes its profound impact on the world we live in. Digital has transformed society, government, culture, business, media and more.1 Barely an aspect of our lives has not been touched in some way. Therefore, when I write about forming a digital strategy, I am not referring to a strategy for using a tool. I am talking about forming a strategy to adapt to the fundamental changes that digital has brought upon society.

The writer is addressing a business audience (specifically web designers) but I think that paragraph pretty much explains why all the technology we’ve poured into classrooms over the past two decades or more has had so little impact on American education.

Too many educators2 still discuss “digital” as a nice-to-have add-on, grafted onto what we’re already doing (as in “digital” learning, for example), rather than adapting the tools to fundamentally change what we do.

And until we decide to make that change, a large percentage of the money schools spend on digital will continue to be wasted.


  1. Note that he doesn’t include education in that list.

  2. and politicians, and business people, and other “experts”

I Guess It’s a Start

The title of this post pretty much tells you everything about the current state of digital textbooks: Students Find E-Textbooks ‘Clumsy’ and Don’t Use Their Interactive Features.

The writer is addressing the issue in colleges but that same statement applies to the online Social Studies textbooks we began using last year here in the overly-large school district.

I’ve ranted about this before but the fact of the matter is that the publisher in our case is offering little more than a digital reproduction of the hardcover book, and they still require us to purchase a minimum number of those analog versions.

The math textbooks our students will be using this year are somewhat better in that the material is largely in HTML, includes some video, and adds a few interactive features. However, as with those digital social studies books, the math textbooks are hit or miss when it comes to using them on smartphones and tablets, even those still running Flash.

I suppose you could view this in a glass-half-full manner, as a tentative start to the process of eventually having all classroom materials in a digital form. I’m just not sure that process is going to move very quickly since the publishers seem far more interested in protecting their markets and profits than they do about anything instructional.

If I was running this show, we would be putting some of the large chunk of the money spent every year on dead-tree books into creating online, open-source, accessible on any device instructional materials of our own.

It’s one of those big changes that could have incredible long-term advantages for an educational system accustomed to very short-term thinking.

The Possibilities of Digital Textbooks

Digital textbooks are all the rage these days.

They’ll save schools billions of dollars, and relieve kids from the burden of carrying around the paper versions. More than a few education “experts” have applied the “revolutionary” tag to the concept.

And on that very subject, the US Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission this week held a big meeting just up the road in Washington on that very subject, with the purpose to determine how the US can “move all K-12 schools to interactive digital textbooks in the next five years”.

So, who attended these high level discussions?

FCC Chairman Genachowski and Secretary of Education Duncan hosted a discussion with CEOs, senior executives, and other leaders from the education technology ecosystem to develop ways the industry and states can meet their challenge to move all K-12 schools to interactive digital textbooks in the next five years.

Representatives included senior executives and leaders from Apple, Aruba Networks, Chegg, Discovery Education, Idaho Department of Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Inkling, Intel, Knewton, Kno, the LEAD Commission, McGraw-Hill, News Corp, Pearson, Samsung, Sprint, and T-Mobile. [emphasis mine]

Education technology ecosystem?

Anyway, with the exception of the participants from Idaho (a known leader of instructional technology innovation, right?), do you see any actual educators in that list? Or any organizations representing the various educational open source initiatives?

No, what you see are the very large companies that already control the printed textbook business, some major tech companies, plus a few tech startups with interests in digital distribution. All of which stand to reap large profits from controlling the digital textbook business.

That’s what Duncan, Apple, Pearson and others really mean when they talk about the “possibilities” of digital textbooks.

Textbooks Don’t Work

In a recent post on his Class Struggle blog, Jay Mathews explains why textbooks don’t work and hurt schools. His conclusions are based on a new book called “Tyranny of the Textbook” that discusses “why the $4 billion-a-year textbook business is so much a part of our schools’ mediocre performance”.

Textbooks don’t work well. Research shows that with rare exceptions they do not help improve student achievement much. They are not effective because effectiveness doesn’t sell.

Jobrack [the author] argues, rightly, that textbooks can help students learn well only if they are part of a curriculum designed by educators who know what works in the classroom and tested by comparing the level of achievement under one curriculum to another. There is research on which curricula are most effective, but textbook companies don’t use it because their customers aren’t interested in that.

“Publishers are incentivized to create materials that appeal to teachers who don’t want to change, so curriculum materials that could have a significant impact on education reform are less profitable,” Jobrack said.

Despite all that “not very effective” stuff, here in the overly-large school district we are in the process of doubling down on textbooks, by adopting the online/digital versions of the same materials being pushed by the publishers.

However, simply swapping out paper books repackaged in a digital format – written and distributed by the same companies, usually with the same content – is not “revolutionary”, “innovative”, “reform”, or whatever other term our administrators have applied to the transition.

The digital versions of these instructional materials are hardly unique, usually wrapped in a convoluted interface and/or DRM, and often cost the same or more than the paper versions, and there are few good reasons to continue supporting this branch of the education business.

The Silver Lining of Digital Textbooks

The Washington Post writes glowingly about an initiative here in the overly-large school district to provide online textbooks for students in middle and high school social studies classes.

A few details the article fails to mention:

The digital books may be cheaper than the paper versions but the publishers are still requiring the system to buy a large number of them before also purchasing the online version.

The interface for the online books is poorly designed, doing little more than replicating the paper version.

The online versions do little to take advantage of the interactivity and flexibility possible in a digital format. Adding the ability to take electronic notes is only a minor improvement.

None of the books will work on the iPad, Kindle or Nook, the e-readers students are most likely to own.

However, I’m not going to complain.  Online textbooks is one major spark behind our system-wide bring your own device program, as well as motivation for schools buying additional portable computers.

And all those devices can also be used for far more creative and interesting purposes than simply reproducing the same old textbook and digitizing the traditional assignments that go with it.