Sunday, May 8, 2011

School Boards Look at Digital Textbook Substitutes

Last week, two accomplished teachers delivered a presentation to our school board demonstrating the use of IPOD touch to deliver a variety of educational books, interactive educational programs, and movies.  A panoply of apps are being created for the IPAD, the IPOD, kindle, and many other delivery systems.  The purpose of that presentation was informational:  to open new vistas and broaden our thinking about the future role of electronic textbooks, educational software, interactive information systems that may radically alter learning and teaching.  Our teachers showed us that this new generation of educators have command of an array of technological skills, combined with enthusiasm for using technology to improve teaching and learning.

The earliest efforts at digital textbooks involved the scanning of existing textbooks into PDF, or other digital formats, ala the Google Book project.  A Newsweek Article,  Digital Textbooks May Revolutionize Education writes:
There are already digital textbooks available, and their numbers are expected to grow: according to Simba Information, which provides data and research on the media industry, they represent less than 2 percent of textbook sales today, but will reach 10 percent by 2012. But in 2010 the offerings were pretty meager. CourseSmart, a San Mateo, Calif., company collectively owned by five of the biggest textbook publishers, has 6,000 educational titles for sale in digital format. But its electronic books are little more than scanned versions of printed works. A CourseSmart e-book includes some neat functions, like search capability and digital note-taking, but for the most part, it has few advantages over a traditional textbook other than weight and price. (CourseSmart books usually cost less than half the price of a new printed book.)
But the advent of new platforms such as Kindle, IPAD, and even IPOD touch, has created new opportunities to create educational tools with flexibility, portability, interactivity, and connectivity. Without question, we are witnessing an explosion of options for teachers and students.  The options are so numerous, and some so exciting, that it becomes daunting for policy makers even to figure out the right questions, let alone come up with the right answers.  Should we invest in IPAD's, IPOD's, Kindles, PC's, or something that isn't yet envisioned?   Will textbooks eventually stop being delivered on paper?   Will the new trend lower the cost of textbooks and textbooks substitutes, or increase the overall cost?   Who will be responsible for vetting quality, accuracy, and grade-appropriateness of material presented?   Will the new flexibility provided by digital media lead to a scattershot approach that leaves out critical components of the curriculum.  Will the new flexibility afforded by electronic media, reduce the control over textbook content historically afforded to the large states, particularly Texas and California? What will be the duration of the license for textbooks:  for example, Coursesmart textbooks are not owned by the purchaser, but are subject to an expiring license.  The student cannot sell the book, after use, and recover some of the purchase price.)

Education is tremendously vulnerable to the excitement of the latest fad.   One website source writes:  "Teaching is, by its very nature, experimental. We teachers are just as susceptible to snake-oil sales pitches, fads, and cultural pressures as any professionals".  In education, we have this undying desire to introduce new ideas, new philosophical approaches, new theories and new techniques.   How do we make sure that we are not ensnared into a particular technology, particular strategy, that is destined to fail, or that is not ultimately an improvement in learning?   Where can Superintendents, curriculum directors, board members, teachers and parents go to try to understand the exciting challenges that are underway?

We know that the manufactures of hardware devices -- Apple and Kindle, for example, will be putting tremendous pressure on school districts, colleges and universities to adopt their particular delivery system as a national standard.   We saw this happen with the dawn of the personal computer, as Apple provided discounted Apples to school districts across the country, hoping to make Apple the delivery system of choice.
Vendors of operating systems (Apple, Microsoft, and others) will hope to dominate by creating industry standards again to dominate the educational market.  Its going to take a lot of resilience and care for the education industry to make wise choices.

Incidentally,  Korea has decided to control the pace and introduction of digital school media centrally  with a national strategy. The Korean Digital Textbook program was announced by the Education Ministry of South Korea on March 8, 2007. The digital textbook is currently being tested in several primary schools and will be distributed free to every school nation-wide by 2013.  See Background Article.

In the United States, this process is being dominated by foundations, new startup companies, and industry giants.  A conferences on the future of digital textbooks sponsored by O'Reilly provides some useful background information. Click Here    At that conference, the keynote speaker argued that a variety of forces are converging to increase the use of digital textbooks and online learning.
  • Growing movement by students, parents, and professors against high price and weight of traditional textbooks.   (It is not yet obvious that ultimately electronic textbooks substitutes of the future will actually be less costly, all things considered, than traditional texbooks
  • Retirement of baby-boom teachers and full emergence of digital natives—younger teachers who have always grown up among computers and integrate them seamlessly into their lives—fueling use of digital textbooks and other digital content 
  • Policy papers like "A Kindle in Every Backpack” policy paper recommend public funding for student e-book devices  
  • California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched an initiative in May 2009 to provide schools with free, open-source digital textbooks for high school students 
  • President Obama announced an initiative to invest in creating online community college courses for job training programs, improvements in basic skills education, and free online education
Where then can we go to begin to get a deeper understanding of the trends and choices now underway?  The Horizon Report 2010  provides a detailed discussion of the issues that we confront.   Here are some other places you can learn more:

Flat World Knowledge, click here.     A visit to their website suggests that you can read open source texts on line for free, but the viewing is available  in a window that is somewhat inconvenient, although far superior to the experience on the tiny IPOD touch.  If you like the text, you can upload it into your kindle, nook, etc for $25.   Or, print it out yourself for a $25 fee, plus your own printing costs.  You can order it shipped to your door for about  $35 to $70.

C-12 Foundation  is creating "Flexbooks" for  IPad, Kindle and others.  The website explains: "Today, textbooks in use in the K-12 system are limiting, expensive, and difficult to update. Because of this, K-12 teachers find it hard to cater to different needs as well as to introduce new concepts. We need a more flexible and less expensive system to create and distribute books and online content. The K-12 system needs to be provided with access to high quality online content, and simple solutions to create, customize, update, and print. This new concept provides a system that will follow an open educational resource philosophy to place content online that can be "mixed, modified, and printed" to suit a teacher's need while adhering to curriculum standards. Our solutions will enable all students to access and obtain an education around the globe.

CourseSmart is run by a consortium of the major textbook publishers.  See also CourseSmart Blog,   You can acquire digital versions, many merely scanned into PDF, for use on your platform of choice.

Inkling   is a company dedicated to publishing digital textbooks for the IPAD.  They write:
Publishing in this new era will cast aside the constraints of the printed book and embrace the opportunity of multitouch devices and their impressive computing power. It will generate content that responds to the user, and it will engage people in new ways that television, newspapers, magazines and websites never could. Inkling is the realization of that potential. It’s a flexible, interactive publishing platform where the human is at the center of the creative process, not the book. Where the iPad is the canvas, not paper. And as people start to grasp the power of the platform, you’re going to see ever more exciting content inside. What we’ve done so far is just the beginning, but it’s already exciting.
Inkling continues:
 Interactivity, though, is only part of the story. Bringing texts onto a digital platform provides an opportunity to make the book as social as the classroom. With Inkling’s technology, for instance, a student can choose to follow another’s “note stream,” or view a heat map of the class’s most-highlighted passages. Professors get real-time information on how much of the reading assignment the class actually did, or whether a particular review problem is tripping up large numbers of students. All that comes on top of the cost savings: even these advanced digital textbooks will cost less than their print equivalents (with most of them in the $99 range) and some will even come “unbundled,” allowing students to buy the individual chapters they need most for a small fraction of the cost of a full textbook.
But others are less sanguine about the future of e-textbooks on the IPAD.  An article in Wired Campus writes: "Matt MacInnis, Inkling’s chief executive, said that students have resisted e-textbooks because they have been difficult to use, but that the success of the iPad offers a chance to start over. Inkling’s focus on painstakingly rebuilding textbooks from scratch in an iPad-friendly format, along with their lower price, will make the difference, he said. (Wired Campus)  Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, said he was skeptical that e-textbooks would see a major turnaround on the timeline that Mr. MacInnis suggested. It is not clear that students actually want digital textbooks, he said, and early indications are that few students believe e-textbooks are a better experience.  It’s also not clear that electronic textbooks will cost much less than their printed cousins, he said. Publishers and others “have to thread the needle between the great aspirations and expectations that these products are going to cost less, and bring dramatic added value,” Mr. Green said. “It just hasn’t happened yet.”

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