Duncan pushes e-textbooks

The Obama administration wants an e-textbook in every student’s hand by 2017, writes USA Today.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants states to use textbook funding for digital learning materials and tablet computers. They’ll jawbone companies to lower prices to schools.

Administration officials say Web-connected instructional materials help students learn more efficiently and give teachers real-time information on how well kids understand material. “We spend $7 billion a year on textbooks, and for many students around the country, they’re out of date,” Genachowski says. In five years, he predicts, “we could be spending less as a society on textbooks and getting more for it.”

While up-front costs for tablet computers are high — new iPads start at $499 — he says moving from paper to digital “saves a ton of money” in the long run. “We absolutely want to push the process.”

Core Knowledge blogger Robert Pondiscio said the enthusiasm around educational technology is “magical thinking.”

“I wish there was even 10% as much thought as to what is going to come through these devices as in getting them into kids’ hands,” he says. “It’s not a magic bullet. We need to worry about what is on these tablets while they’re sitting in kids’ laps.”

Karen Cator, the U.S. Department of Education’s technology director, says tablet computers will extend the school day and engage students.

In my school days, I’d go home, finish my homework and read for three hours or so. OK, I was not normal, even among my studious friends. But I don’t think that gee-whiz devices will engage kids who don’t read well. Not for long, anyhow.

On a visit to my mother this week, I picked up a 1945 book on teaching remedial reading that must be left over from her master’s program in education back in the ’50s. (It advocates delaying phonics till second grade, after students have memorized a bunch of sight words.) Among the strategies for motivating struggling readers, the author suggested letting them use a typewriter to write the new words they’ve learned. Kids will be excited by the technology, the professor wrote.

I’m sure that e-books are the wave of the future, but schools should be careful not to spend before they’ve figured out how new learning materials will improve learning.  Do students need an iPad? A Kindle or Nook equivalent? Some new, cheaper device not yet available? Yes, publishers will lower prices to compete for market share, but schools need to make sure they’re not locked into one company’s products or blocked from using free open-source materials.

About Joanne


  1. I found this article very interesting because I am in a district that is planning on investing in a “one-to-one” I-touch system. I am on a planning committee to determine who we would use these to promote student growth. I am amazed at the new software out there such as interactive text books. I am interested in how other districts at the high school level are using “one-to-one” systems beyond just a simple internet explorer and word processor. I have read many success stories at the elementary level, but nothing at the high school level as it directly relates to students growth in any content area. I know Stevenson High School in Illinois are using a “one-to-one” system and plan to further investigate their findings.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I completely agree with you, Joanne. A student who ignores his textbook is going to ignore his text e-book, too.

    That said, it *will* be cheaper, and it will reduce the pressures towards textbook homogeneity. Individual academics will be able to put together short texts and market directly to teachers (or, more likely, to districts).

    And if a teacher has a great idea for a text, or an exercise book, or a reader or whatnot, just compile it. Distribution becomes incredibly simple.

    Ebooks aren’t magic. And technology doesn’t fix problems of human nature.

    But technology does often fix real problems out in the world, and we should be excited at the possibilities that the digital revolution has created.

  3. E-book readers also provide built-in surveillance of what’s being viewed, recording pages displayed and time on the display (and do you think your marginal notes will stay private? dream on).

    The uses of E-book readers to force ideological conformity ought to scare you.

  4. You write, “I’m sure that e-books are the wave of the future, but schools should be careful not to spend before they’ve figured out how new learning materials will improve learning.”

    If there’s no other actual or potential benefit to ebooks, that’s fair. But if eBook readers and electronic texts lower costs, even if the educational value is a break-even there’s a net gain.

  5. Another plus: students who are bored with the lesson of the day can play “Angry Birds” (or whatever the 2017 equivalent is) instead of disrupting class.

    Seriously, they can’t just be e-readers — it would be stupid not to have them web-connected, even if they’re not as fancy as iPads. Web-based resources are way more extensive than ebooks. But once you’re on the web, there’s a lot of potential distraction.

    • The iPad isn’t really geared up for it, but as they move into the enterprise and educational markets I expect that they’ll ad more tools to lock down what users can do at any given moment. There are some decent third party tools, already, and it’s easy enough for schools to prevent you from installing an unauthorized app on your school-issued device.

  6. I think it’s going to be more expensive not less expensive. Right now the textbooks we furnish to students cost a ludicrous $120 each (more or less). And for that, what do you get?
    You get a lot of knowledge, compiled into one place and carefully edited. (could you that same information free? Probably ,but there’d be a lot less quality control).
    Well, you get acid free paper, so that you can keep using the same textbooks for a while (10 or 12 years).
    You get an object that you can toss in your backpack, and then drop on the floor when you get home, and if your dad trips on it or steps on it, there’s no damage to the book
    You get something you can flip back and forth in easily, and you can put sticky note comments in easily (I don’t have an e-reader yet. I’m tempted, but the technology isn’t there yet. Right now it isn’t possible on any e-reader that I know about to view a .pdf and attach notes to the margins of the .pdf. Once that becomes do-able I’m buying one–though I’m not telling my local school district to).

    Suppose you get e-readers or tablets. Well, that’s $100-$500 each. I’m going to estimate about $200 on average. The digital versions of the texts don’t have the production costs, but they still have a lot of cost in terms of writing and editing and production and so forth, so the e-textbooks cost (yes they really do) about $60. That’s half price! Great! Except for the cost of the tablet… And then you can get them updated more frequently with more current information. Probably the publisher will let you upgrade for only $40. Now, e-readers aren’t built as tough as textbooks, so you have to be careful not to drop it, or step on it, or get it wet, because if you do someone will have to pay for a new one. I wonder who? And then these things all get run down, and the screens get damaged, and their interface with the internet gets slower and slower, so you have to replace them about every 4-6 years. That’s half the lifespan of a book.

    So, in a high school, each right now gets issued about 5 textbooks at a time. That’s 5 x $120 = $600 per kid every 10 years. As a very rough estimate.

    If you go to e-readers, the price you pay for content (the e-book) gets cut in half ($300), but you have to pay for the e-readers, and you have to replace them twice as often (my estimate $200 x 2 = $400 per decade). That’s about $700 per kid every 10 years. Also a rough estimate.

    The way I figure it, tablets are probably going to cost somewhat more than textbooks for anyone adopting them at least for a while, and anyone switching to tablets from paper had better have a better reason than saving money.

    • Sean Mays says:

      Be honest. A survey of Amazon shows that for some books, the e-book price is HIGHER than the paper price. Granted, that’s typically on hot releases, but I think 50% savings on the text is FAR too generous. More likely, publishers would want to grant a yearly license, for ONLY 20 bucks. Then you’d get the latest and greatest. BUT, you’d have to update it every year. In a budget crunch you couldn’t decide, well, let’s get another couple years out of these books, nope, sorry, new kid in Algebra I, new license. Then there’s outright theft of the reader. Add that in, those things will have street value…

      I’m leary of the “e-waste” problem. The ecological footprint for these things is likely to be far higher than for paper, sustainably harvested or otherwise. Imagine how many megawatts will be required for these things? 55 million kids from pre-K to 12th, even half of them using e-readers at about 5 to 10 Watts per hour … that’s plenty of juice.

      Then there’s a body of research that indicates that people read on screens slower than paper..


      A 20% loss of reading speed points toward an increase (simplistically 25%) in the time students are involved in reading, all else being equal. Of course, for the kids who don’t bother to do the work, 125% of nothing is …. still nothing.

      I’m just dubious about the whole “this time the technology WILL change the future thing.” I’m sure they’ll get it right one of these days, just like the doomsday prophets.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        Imagine how many megawatts will be required for these things? 55 million kids from pre-K to 12th, even half of them using e-readers at about 5 to 10 Watts per hour … that’s plenty of juice.

        According to this site:


        per-capita energy use per year in the US is about 70 million BTUs. One BTU is about 0.3 Watt-hours, so 70M/3 is roughly 23 million Watt hours per person (a lot of this is used by industry).

        An iPad uses about 2.5 Watts when being used.

        Assuming 2,000 hours of usage per year for these things at school, we get 5,000 Watt hours per kid. Or 0.02% of the US per-capita energy usage. If we really care, we can turn off one or two 100 W lightbulb per classroom while using these things and everything balances out. Since the iPads are backlit, you can read them nicely in lower light conditions.

        There are a lot of reasons to think that this isn’t a good idea, but energy usage of the iPad (or equivalent) really isn’t one of them.

        • Sean Mays says:

          Thanks Mark, that’s a nice answer. Even including losses from charging the device we’re not talking mucho juice. Now, about all those nasty chemicals and metals used in manufacture…

    • Don’t forget the infrastructure and maintenance costs…

  7. Obi-Wandreas says:

    There are a lot of misconceptions here.

    The iBooks program does not record pages read, nor does it have any capability to relay such information were it collected in the first place.

    Textbooks on the iBooks store cost $14.99 or less. This includes any future updates – there is no mechanism in the iOS for limited time licenses. This book will continue to work forever. Should your device be lost or destroyed, you simply download it onto the new device. If you have been properly backing up, your notes and other info will be restored.

    These textbooks are modified versions of the pre-existing textbooks. The Pearson Integrated Algebra book which I use with my 8th grade Algebra class is out as an iBook. It contains more detailed diagrams, video lessons, and interactive questions which give feedback as to the student’s progress.

    I am still most excited about the iBooks author program. The idea of producing my own textbook, if even just for my own use, is very appealing.

    That all being said, however, it’s still no panacea. Without good teaching practices and proper student motivation, none of this will mean anything. One should not discount, however, the advantages it can have.

    • The market is going to be much bigger than iBooks. Some major publishers already collect data on how people interact with their apps – landscape vs. portrait, time on page, interactions with ads and features, etc. That information is useful in building a better, more engaging product.

      Many publishers will produce versions of their electronic textbooks requiring periodic repurchase to gain access to the latest, supported version, and some will offer subscription models in addition to (or instead of) purchased texts that can be reused each year. You can already get books, including many textbooks, through an online subscription interface. When the subscription end, so does access.

      It is possible that enough nonprofit or inexpensive texts will come on the market to keep costs down, but I expect that many major publishers will try to sell school districts annual packages – “all of our texts, supported and updated for the year, for one ‘low’ price.”

  8. ” While up-front costs for tablet computers are high — new iPads start at $499 — he says moving from paper to digital “saves a ton of money” in the long run. “We absolutely want to push the process.” ”

    This tendency to jump on the band wagon is annoying. My complaint pertains to this fixation on the iPad. I mean that there are alternatives to the iPad. For example, take Amazon’s Kindle Fire. It’s $199 and it can also download apps, books, magazines, and etc. To top it off, Amazon’s Kindle Fire can use Flash while Apple’s iPad cannot. You know what that means? The Kindle Fire can use YouTube and the iPad cannot.

    People need to take a break off of the Apple bandwagon for a bit. They’ll save themselves a lot more money and possibly get much or all of what they originally wanted anyway.

  9. During the 1980s, General Motors CEO Roger Smith spent billions of dollars buying robotic technology to improve the efficiency of car making. Meanwhile, Toyota was focusing less on technology per se and more on thinking intelligently about manufacturing processes and how they could actually be made to work better. You know how that turned out.

    There is an analogy with the knee-jerk attitude of so many “educators” to go out and purchase whatever technology is viewed as coolest at any given moment

  10. I can see day where college bookstores would become obsolete. You could just purchase a digital copy of the textbook and load it on your tablet or e-reader and take it to class. The campus could just sell them over the internet and you could download everything you need to one device. You would never have to carry heavy textbooks to class. You could also have related books on your e-reader for additional information that would be helpful to the class. If you are taking multiple classes in the same day, this would be the only way that you could have all the information right at your fingertips.