updated 09:45 pm EDT, Fri March 30, 2012
Apple, others gather at Washington summit
A group of educational publishers, technology companies and two government agencies held a meeting in Washington DC today to promote a plan for transitioning US classrooms at the K-12 level to digital textbook over the next five years. The plan, being put together by the Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission, has already revealed that moving to a more digital model for student textbooks -- including the devices and technology infrastructure needed to use them -- will save schools about $250 per student per year, adding up to over $12.2 billion per year if fully implemented.
Representatives from technology companies such as Apple, Intel and Samsung attended the gathering, along with telecom companies such as Sprint and T-Mobile, publishers including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson and McGraw-Hill, digital publishers including Discovery Education, Kno, Knewton, Inkling and News Corporation. The Idaho Department of Education, the FCC and the Department of Education along with other organizations connected to the LEAD Commission were also in attendance at the gathering, which was hosted by FCC chair Julius Genachowski and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Genachowski said the group is focused on "the challenges to universal digital textbooks ... affordability, content, interoperability, connectivity, technology and state policies" as well as the goal of having more "classroom-ready" products unveiled before the next school year begins. Apple's recent initiative in textbook publishing and continued focus on iPad sales to schools, along with lowering textbook costs through digital publishing, has put it in the lead in helping publishers and others transition to digital textbooks, though it will not be the only company doing so in the months ahead.
The FCC has been promoting a five-year challenge and has published a downloadable "digital textbook playbook" to help schools, districts and systems implement and fund the technology infrastructure needed to implement a transition to digital textbooks, which in addition to the per-student savings are also expected to offer numerous other benefits. For example, as Apple's Phil Schiller pointed out, content in digital textbooks can be updated as new discoveries or information changes are found without reprinting or updating the application, not to mention the greatly reduced weight and storage space needed for a tablet compared to stacks of books covering different subjects.
If all or almost all of the US's 49-50 million K-12 students were to be equipped with digital textbooks, the quality of the textbook education would significantly improve (along with other less-tangible benefits such as an expected lowering of the dropout rate and improved test scores) and the cumulative savings would be substantial: over $12 billion per year. Though the average $250 per student per year is only a fraction of the $3,800 schools spend per student per year in public education, it would act as a significant hedge against future cost increases while improving the quality of the education, the commission believes.
As part of the conference, participants were shown examples from a state-by-state "digital report card" illustrating how far different states have come in setting up system-wide access for students to technology. Also discussed were ideas for the companies involved to work together to rapidly increase the number of digital textbooks available and devices and wireless technology to enable full implementation in the classroom. The White House is expected to support some of the initiatives in a fall announcement.
The DoE also announced findings based on surveys of teachers that technology-based instruction can significantly reduce the time it takes student to reach a learning objective by up to 80 percent. Also cited were other studies, such as a PBS survey that said 90 percent of teachers believe tools such as tablets and interactive whiteboards enhance learning ability by engaging students and enriching the classroom experience, a Project RED study that found that continuous access to devices like tablets raise academic achievement and financial benefits, and a Federal Reserve study which found that students with computers and broadband at home increased the chance of graduation by six to eight percent.
Although the US spends more than $7 billion annually on traditional textbooks, many students are still using books that are seven to 10 years old and often contain outdated material, the commission said. Other countries, such as South Korea, may gain a further competitive advantage over the US by transitioning to digital textbooks more quickly.
The FCC has already launched major initiatives to get fiber and other high-speed broadband into schools as quickly as possible through the E-Rate program established by Congress. It is expanding its involvement through a "Learning-on-the-Go" pilot program that enables libraries and schools to offer more courses online and provide devices to students outside the school, as well as setting up tests of "School Spots" that offer students free "hotspots" for students to use that enable learning technologies after school hours.