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Are Digital Textbooks The Wave of The Future or Simply a New Jobs Program for Textbook Publishers?

I had an unfortunate accident this weekend. A couple thoughts, which had been circling my mind, happened to collide in a most pleasant way. After thinking for another day or so I came to a new viewpoint on digital textbooks that both explains what I think is really going on and is deeply depressing.

A couple weeks back I happened across a story about the State of NY debating whether to drop the current GED test. It seems that NY had outsourced running the test to a  contractor, which has recently been bought by Pearson, and that contractor had announced that the cost of running the test would double next year.

Pearson has announced changes to the exam, planned for 2014, that will roughly double its price and could limit its access. New York State, which currently fully funds the price of the exam, would, using its current budget, only be able to test roughly half of those who now take the test each year.

I suppose it should be obvious that someone was running the testing on behalf of the state, but that was a detail I had not thought of until I read the story above.

So that story had been sitting in a browser tab while I thought about how to write it, when a related story came across my inbox last week. This one is also from New York, and it too has to do with standardized testing. This is the clue by four which might hurt a little:

We have turned school testing into a huge corporate profit center, led by Pearson, for whom $32 million is actually pretty small potatoes. Pearson has a five-year testing contract with Texas that’s costing the state taxpayers nearly half-a-billion dollars.

This is the part of education reform nobody told you about. You heard about accountability, and choice, and innovation. But when No Child Left Behind was passed 11 years ago, do you recall anybody mentioning that it would provide monster profits for the private business sector?

Tell, me, which do you think came first when No Child Left Behind was first thought up, the dollar signs or the child being left behind?

As a cynical person, I believe it was the former, and that is what I think is happening right now with digital textbooks. But I will leave the question open as we turn our attention to digital textbooks.

Pearson, as you probably know, is heavily invested in the digital textbook startup Inkling. They were also one of the launch partners for iBooks Author, with their name mentioned often at the launch event. Clearly they think digital textbooks are the hot new product for 2012.

Yes, I can understand their desire to sell stuff, but I must take issue with how I suspect they go about the process of pitching the sales. It seems to me like the textbook publishers aren’t selling the product so much as convincing politicians that there’s a problem to be solved.

I feel it explains why publishers are so hot for digital textbooks, and it finally gives me an understandable reason why Obama called for schools to embrace digital textbooks.

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.

This would also explain, for example, why Florida mandated digital textbooks adoption for all public schools by 2015. As much as we might concede the benefits of digital textbooks, doesn’t it seem that Florida is moving awfully fast to require the changeover in such a short period of time?

One of my readers always tells me to follow the money. Now I finally understand why the government is hyping digital textbooks so; it looks like they’re being influenced by lobbyists – just like the Bush administration and No Child Left Behind.

Sure, digital textbooks have some advantages over paper textbooks, but it would seem more likely to me that publishers saw the dollar signs first and came up with the list of advantages second.

I’m not accusing anyone of being nefarious, but it does bother me how the major publishers are probably influencing the spending of my tax dollars. Unfortunately, I’m told that it’s not uncommon in public schools for lobbying and salesmanship affect decisions more than the quality of the product or whether it’s really needed.

The thing is, if my conclusion about why digital textbooks got so hot so fast is correct then it raises serious doubts as to whether they really have so many virtues. What if all the supposed advantages of digital textbooks are really the invention of a sophisticated marketing department and not the observations of enthusiastic adopters?

It would mean that we’ll find ourselves 10 years from now just where "No Child Left Behind" is right now: lots of money spent but little improvement to show for it.

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Belinda May 7, 2012 um 9:37 pm

Good post. I’ve always thought that for as many problems that digital textbooks solve (weight, cost) they introduce just as many new problems. I mean, it costs money to produce all the enhanced material that would make a digital product compelling, so the price of the book has to absorb those costs.

I work in textbook publishing, and my company isn’t seeing huge take-up of our digital offerings, which, to be fair are pretty much just PDFs at this stage, though more complex ones are in development. I’m in Australia, though, so the market here is quite different to the States.

Fbone May 8, 2012 um 4:26 am

Florida paid $177 for each Kindle. Only one subject needs to be digital by 2015 and then add more subjects subsequent years. AT&T couldn’t handle the bandwidth and system crashed with only one small school going digital. Most funding currently comes from Federal programs. Very little savings expected with the transition.

PTa May 8, 2012 um 12:31 pm

I actually asked my school district why we didn’t use e-textbooks and was told they had investigated and found that it would be more expensive since publishers would only license the books for one user–unlike regular text books which can be used by a different student every year. Thanks for looking deeper into this issue.

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Chris May 8, 2012 um 3:18 pm

Great post. The real problem is that digital platforms for education can’t really take off until they can be as open as the web. When it’s being handled by companies like Pearson and Apple, then, yes, then schools are suddenly filled with material with lots of bells and whistles, but locked under restrictive licenses and attached to specific devices. Openness and accessibility of information are the way of the future; I think the government doesn’t understand the actual benefits of digital textbooks, focusing instead on fairly superficial things like "Aren’t books heavy?"

Craig May 8, 2012 um 5:09 pm

Nate, your questions merely raise additional questions. Instead of identifying how much outsourced testing costs or how much the cost has risen year to year, isn’t the more appropriate question, how much would it have costed if the schools/states had done it themselves? If the answer is that Pearson’s original NY contract was 25% of what the state could have done it for themselves and a doubling in cost merely saves taxpayers 50% as opposed to 75%, then that is one important data point. Same goes for TX’s 1/2 a billion dollar deal. How much does it cost for the state to do it and do they have the expertise, the infrastructure, the technology, etc.? Finally, I’ve worked in the educational publishing industry for a while before leaving it for the ed tech world. There are outstanding pedagogical reasons to go digital as well as cost of delivery issues.

Nate Hoffelder February 9, 2013 um 3:08 pm

I don’t see how that is relevant. It looks to me like Pearson bought the company and then jacked up the cost so they could make more money.

ina gravitz May 8, 2012 um 6:01 pm

Until the issue of live, usable indexes is resolved, digital textbooks cannot be the answer. Students must be able to look up a specific topic and get intelligible results and go back and forth between the topics and the text. Search provides hits; many of which are useless. And Search does not provide context; an index does. An index provides that essential dialog between the user (in this case student) and the text.
Ina Gravitz
Vice President/President-elect of the American Society for Indexing

abyg November 4, 2013 um 9:22 am

Digital search is far more useful than indexes. I don’t know what you’ve been smoking. What a pathetic society.

abyg November 4, 2013 um 9:19 am

We need more jobs programs. It’s disgusting that you’re trying to use the weird as if it had a negative connotation. Perhaps short term investment in digital textbooks could have long term benefits, rather than your narrowly focused sort term thinking.

Nate Hoffelder November 4, 2013 um 10:15 am

We don’t need jobs programs for companies, and we certainly don’t need ones which will harm students and waste what limited funds are available in public schools coffers.

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Alan Hodgin May 22, 2015 um 6:58 am

RM Books provides free annotation tools for teachers to be able to work on top of etextbooks and topic books to add value for their students – comments, discussion, audio, pictures and video – to personalise their textbooks and to improve understanding of, and engagement with, the content. Teachers can also add simple (auto-marked) quizzes into the books to test students' comprehension. They can also rent the titles for just the period they want them.

This combination of etextbooks and our book notes annotation tools is proving compelling for educators and their students.

Thought I’d share a couple of examples in case this is of interest:
Harris Academy in Dundee, Scotland:
Shireland Collegiate Academy:

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