Digital Textbooks Stumble on the Hardware Hurdle

2262564867_f677237341[1]Way back in January I was inspired by the launch of iBooks Author to post on how poor students will get left behind in the so-called digital textbook revolution. I lamented that school districts with limited funds  won't be able to take advantage of the benefits of digital textbooks (I still believed in the hype back then) because of the sometimes expensive hardware costs.

Recent events now suggest that the bar for adopting digital textbooks is a lot higher than I expected, and it turns out that even a well-to-do suburb of D.C. can face insurmountable issues - ones so bad that they have to go back to paper textbooks.

According to the Washington Post (and confirmed on an official website) Fairfax County Public Schools is currently in the process of replacing some recently licensed math textbooks with even newer paper copies.

FCPS has always been at the forefront of adopting new tech in classrooms, whether it is  setting up 1:1 classrooms or pushing for greater participation in BYOD programs, and this school year they decided to go into digital textbooks in  big way. FCPS signed up 3 publishers, Pearson, Holt, and McGraw/Hill to provide online math textbooks for all students in all grades, K-12.

That's an ambitious project, no? It would save students the effort of carrying the textbooks around while avoiding the need for expensive hardware like the iPad. I mean, almost everyone has a computer with internet access at home right?

Well, no, they don't. And even for the ones that do have access, it turns out that access alone is not enough.

One or more of the digital textbook platforms (I'm not clear on which one) apparently requires not just an internet connection but a fast DSL connection, which not all households have. They don't need it otherwise and frankly because not everyone can afford the more expensive fees.

And even when students did have a fast internet connection at home, sometimes they were unable to use it due to other connection issues such as the time that storm damage from Hurricane Sandy took out Pepcom and parts of the local telecoms coverage.

And so the school district has decided to replace some of the online textbooks with paper textbooks. This is expected to cost around $2 million, and the new copies should be available for students by the time they return to school in January.

As we can see from FCPS error, one problem with rushing forward in pursuit of same great idea is that someone is always going to be left behind. This might not be an issue in most endeavors, but education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Public education is supposed to give people the chance to pull themselves up by enabling more opportunities.

This great rush to adopt more and more gadgetry is actually going to have the opposite effect, and I'd say that is a good reason to take a step back and reconsider what a school's priorities really are.

image by rob.wall

6 thoughts on “Digital Textbooks Stumble on the Hardware Hurdle

  1. Sounds like the publisher gimped the books some kind of always-on DRM. Why else would a student need a high-speed internet connection at home? Sad, really, once again only legitimate, paying customers were harmed by such draconian measures.

    1. The textbooks also included the homework assignments, which naturally required being online.

      And it looks like at least some of these textbooks had no persistent offline mode of any kind, something which doesn’t surprise me.

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