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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.


  1. schledorn

    Regarding your last paragraph – many of the online textbooks are just reproductions of the dead tree ones. Some go so far as to add interactive quizzes, but that’s about it. As soon as publishers (small I hope) start creating books that really take advantage of the tablets and readers, then we’ll see a real game change. Until then it’s just the same old thing.

  2. Wil

    There are a few textbooks that have really good online and mobile versions. Macmillan’s ‘Global’ EFL textbooks are a great example for others to follow.

    I think once the demand is clear enough and publishers have the framework in place, they will start to roll out systems like this for other subjects.

  3. schledorn

    One major issue is the snail’s pace that most schools adopt technology. We’re still using XP and we will for the forseeable future. We share 2 computer labs between 70 teachers, and we’re the norm for high schools in my state.

    Why would a large publisher spend hundreds of thousands of dollars developing something that most schools can’t use and therefore won’t buy? But without the option, why would most schools invest in the technology? Catch-22 I think.

    We need one publisher to make the jump and take the early hit to get game change. Any volunteers?

    • Tim

      I think what will really push the publishers to innovate would be for very large districts like ours to develop their own textbooks, distributing them only online. For most subjects, the material wouldn’t be hard to pull together. The hard part will be creating the interactive and media pieces to make it more compelling than a printed text – and everything available on the web.

      I look at what our system pays the big publishers every year and I think it would actually save us money over the long run. Unfortunately, school districts deal with budgets only in the short run.

      • schledorn

        My dream is a future where school systems create their own materials. Everything from textbooks, study guides, to test reviews made in house, and specifically for the people who will be consuming it, on the materials they have, will change education.

        But it’s so much easier to buy it from someone else.

  4. jeck.smith

    I agree that online textbooks are acting as a major force in motivativg schools to buy additional portable computers. #K12onlineschool education is essential for enhancing students’ learning abilities.

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