In digital textbook transition, device availability is just the beginning

Among technology’s top titans, the race is on to bring tablet-based digital textbooks into the classroom. Since launching the iPad, Apple (s AAPL) has made a big push in education, and its expected iPad Mini launch this week will likely open it up to an even wider range of education customers. Last week, Amazon (s AMZN) announced a new Whispercast feature to help schools centrally purchase and distribute content to a fleet of student devices. And Microsoft’s Surface (s MSFT), as well as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1 and Chromebook (released with Google (s GOOG)), are also contenders for new classroom tools.

With each new launch, someone inevitably declares the impending end of physical textbooks, as though those tech giants control the levers responsible for the successful adoption of new technology in schools. But while the tech industry plays a significant role in the transition to digital textbooks, making devices available and affordable is just the beginning. Rallied by leaders at the top, momentum is certainly moving in favor of digital textbooks – earlier this month, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared that “over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete” – but challenges for states and school districts still remain.

Schools, districts need more flexibility to purchase content

At their best, digital textbooks offer a learning experience that boosts engagement, adapts to student learning, tracks performance and ensures up-to-date content – all while potentially saving costs in the longterm. According to a report from the Digital Textbook Collaborative, which was convened by the FCC and the US Department of Education, the cost of implementing the shift to digital varies from $250 to $1,000 per student per year, but the cost savings from increased teacher attendance, reduced paper costs, online assessments and other factors are estimated to be $600 per student per year. However, some say estimates on cost savings assume tablet prices that are less than actual costs and, without funding support, the upfront costs are difficult for many school districts to manage.

Beyond the initial technology costs of getting to a one-to-one student-to-tablet ratio (from the historic student-to-computer ratio of 3.75 to 1), Geoff Fletcher, deputy executive director for the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), said the current procurement processes for textbook content aren’t aligned with the dynamics of the digital world. “The business model right now doesn’t take advantage of the enormous flexibility because all the money is locked into one approach,” he said.

As it stands now, in most states, Fletcher said, decision-making power regarding which textbooks should be adopted by schools is centrally held by the states. The textbook publishers, who have long dominated the education content industry, benefit from that model (my colleague Laura Hazard Owen provides a nice snapshot of that market here), but Fletcher said more states need to encourage the development of content marketplaces by giving schools and school districts the flexibility to select the content their students will use.

Aside from the funding challenge, there’s the infrastructure hurdle of expanding broadband services to communities with inadequate Internet connectivity.  According to a 2010 FCC survey, 80 percent of schools say their broadband connections do not meet their needs and FCC reported this year that 19 million Americans still lack broadband access.

The good news is that the FCC and Department of Education are actively pushing change at the federal level and, over the past couple of years, 22 states have adopted policies encouraging digital textbooks, the SETDA reports. But as new digital content starts entering classrooms, the organization says local districts need to ensure that their policies accept the use of new devices and provide adequate professional learning to teachers.

User experience matters

Osman Rashid, CEO of digital textbook startup Kno, said that in addition to making devices and content available, providing a user experience that engages students is critical to the success of digital textbooks. While Apple’s iPad, which supports the use of interactive educational software, leads among new technology in schools, Amazon is trying to make a bigger push with the Kindle, attracting budget-conscious educators with a lower price. But except for the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s devices, which were built mostly around text, don’t offer students a markedly different or more engaging experience. They may lighten the load in students’ backpacks, which is a positive step but hardly the only benefit we should look to digital textbooks to provide.

To help ease the transition to digital, several schools have adopted “Bring Your Own Device” programs that save money by enabling students to use tablets owned by their families in class. But while many BYOD programs are producing encouraging results, schools need to be prepared for additional technological and instructional support. Not only do schools need to add bandwidth to support new devices (of varying ages and types), they need to prepare teachers to work with a range of devices. Most importantly, the programs need to build in safeguards to ensure that students whose parents can’t afford devices aren’t left behind. In the short term, schools can provide tablets to students who don’t have their own. But in the long term, the equity issue could rear its head as wealthier students bring in technology that outstrips their classmates’ in speed and performance, said McGraw-Hill (s MHP) SVP Vineet Madan.

“BYOD looks attractive,” he said. But “you won’t really appreciate the gap or performance difference until you’re two or three years into it.”

With many of these challenges, it’s up to the schools, districts and states, not industry players, to figure out solutions. But the SETDA’s Fletcher said that in addition to providing devices, there is another key role that companies like Apple and Amazon play.

“These are folks who want to show schools what can be, not just respond to the customer,” he said. “That kind of partnership is crucial in helping to make these kinds of changes in educational technology.”