President Obama has challenged educational institutions to place digital textbooks in the hands of all their students in five years (2017). While colleges and universities have already introduced digital textbooks as a means to reduce costs for their students, K-12 education is venturing cautiously, but steadily, with their use.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently recommend that states modify the textbook adoption process, allowing K-12 schools to use taxpayer funding once reserved for printed books on iPads, Kindles and their software supports. However, if publishers, computer tablet makers, and Internet service providers want to get their products in the hands of the nation’s 50 million students, they will have to work together, lower costs, and demonstrate how digital textbooks enhance learning.
Government officials say Web-connected instructional materials help students learn more efficiently and give teachers real-time information on how well their students understand the material. Schools currently spend $7 billion a year on textbooks that are often out-of-date. Genachowski predicts that in five years, “we could be spending al lot less on digital textbooks and getting more for it.”
Like Chairman Genachowski, Karen Cator, the U.S. Department of Education’s technology director, says using digital textbooks and moving classwork onto electronic tablets gives students the ability to do research, check their work and get real-time feedback from teachers. She insists that the use of these devices “will provide opportunities to extend the school day by providing students with interactive and engaging environments outside of school.”
Digital textbooks come in four basic forms: (a) e-textbook readers like the Amazon Kindle or the Apple iPad, (b) read-on-demand computer-based textbooks like those from Google Books and NetLibrary, (c) print-on-demand e-textbooks, and (d) multi-media software assemblages of audio, visual, interactive text resources presented via iTunesU, wikis, and cell phone digital applications. Digital textbooks, however, have important distinctions that make them something other than just a PDF version of their printed counterpart.
Digital textbooks include a number of interactive features that are unique to their dynamic technological environment. E-textbooks often include built-in dictionaries and pronunciation guides. They are not limited to static pictures but also integrate video, audio, animation, and even interactive simulation. Storylines and characters become more dynamic through the use of gaming features. Rather than merely read the story, students are encouraged to actively interact with the story. These and other emerging features will undoubtedly further the distinction between print-based books and e-texts.