Challenge to schools: Embracing digital textbooks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Are hardbound textbooks going the way of slide rules and typewriters in schools?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski on Wednesday challenged schools and companies to get digital textbooks in students’ hands within five years. The Obama administration’s push comes two weeks after Apple Inc. announced it would start to sell electronic versions of a few standard high-school books for use on its iPad tablet.

Digital books are viewed as a way to provide interactive learning, potentially save money and get updated material faster to students.

Digital learning environments have been embraced in Florida, Idaho, Utah, and California, as well as in individual schools and districts such as Joplin, Mo., where laptops replaced textbooks destroyed in a tornado. But many schools lack the broadband capacity or the computers or tablets to adopt the technology, and finding the money to go completely digital is difficult for many schools in tough economic times. And, in some places, adopting new textbooks is an arduous process.

At a time when technology has transformed how people interact and even led to social uprisings in the Middle East, education has too often lagged, Duncan said.

“Do we want kids walking around with 50-pound backpacks and every book in those backpacks costing 50, 60, 70 dollars and many of them being out of date? Or, do we want students walking around with a mobile device that has much more content than was even imaginable a couple years ago and can be constantly updated? I think it’s a very simple choice,” Duncan said in an interview.

Tied to Wednesday’s announcement at a digital town hall was the government’s release of a 67-page “playbook” to schools that promotes the use of digital textbooks and offers guidance. The administration hopes that dollars spent on traditional textbooks can instead go toward making digital learning more feasible.

Going digital improves the learning process, and it’s being rolled out at a faster pace in other countries, such as South Korea, Genachowski said in an interview.

“When a student reads a textbook and gets to something they don’t know, they are stuck,” Genachowski said. “Working with the same material on a digital textbook, when they get to something they don’t know, the device can let them explore: It can show them what a word means, how to solve a math problem that they couldn’t figure out how to solve.”

Students can use the textbooks for video explanations to help with homework, they can interact with molecules, and they can manipulate a digital globe to see stories and data about countries, said Karen Cator, director of the Education Department’s office of education technology.

After the tornado last May destroyed several schools in Joplin, the decision was made essentially to go textbook free at three sites hosting high school kids from Joplin High School and the Franklin Technology Center. The United Arab Emirates donated money to buy each student a laptop.

The response from students has been mixed, said Angie Besendorfer, the district’s assistant superintendent. She said the transition has proved difficult for some kids accustomed to a standard routine of answering questions at the end of a chapter, but administrators are pleased with the online learning and hope 8th-graders also will go essentially textbook free.

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