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What Is Holding Back the Rise of Digital Textbooks?

Though one-to-one computing programs continue to grow, particularly in higher education, K-12 school districts have been slow to adopt digital textbooks and curricula, often citing concerns like cost of annual updates.

With a new school year underway, many American middle and high school students are once again leaving their homes in the morning carrying backpacks overloaded with textbooks and school supplies, and perhaps also a laptop or tablet. With so many aspects of these students’ lives fully transformed by the digital realm, one might wonder, “What happened to digital textbooks? Weren’t schools supposed to be using those by now?”

Textbook publishers have long been preparing for the move to digital. And U.S. schools have likewise been rapidly outfitting their students with personal digital devices — laptops, tablets and especially Chromebooks. Yet many schools that have invested in one-to-one student digital devices continue to issue hard-copy textbooks.

Pearson, the educational publishing giant, made a recent announcement of the company’s new “digital first” model, meaning that going forward, only its digital-format learning materials will be updated. This caused a stir in the publishing industry and raised eyebrows among educators. But Pearson’s digital focus is only for the 1,500 higher-ed textbooks it publishes, since the company had already divested most of its assets in the K-12 textbook market. The other big players in the K-12 publishing world are apparently playing the long game, and remain committed to developing and updating both their print and digital materials.

According to the Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN)2019 K-12 IT Leadership Survey Report, about 60 percent of districts have implemented one-to-one student device programs with their middle and high school students. However, the report also states that “print continues to be the predominant format for instructional materials.” So with this number of student devices in play, why does the slow pace continue for districts adopting digital curricula?

The schools and districts that have implemented one-to-one programs for their secondary-level students — and also upgraded their wireless networks to support these devices — have made major financial investments toward becoming digital. But many are finding the costs for replacing their print curricula with digital versions to be equally daunting.

Unlike college students, who are required to either buy their own print textbooks or lease a publisher’s digital version, K-12 schools must absorb these costs. And though the up-front cost to purchase a print textbook is significant ($75 to $100), the book can be continually used for many years. By comparison, the digital subscription model used by most publishers requires a yearly lease payment ($15 and up), for each digital text, which over time can prove more expensive than the book.

Most states and school districts also still employ a textbook adoption cycle based on an established model of the material’s alignment to state standards and a print textbook’s content and physical lifespan (about six years.) Districts stage their adoption processes and budget their funds accordingly, adding another wrinkle to the transition to digital curricula conundrum.

Buy-in of District Curriculum Departments
A disconnect also exists in many districts between the technology and the curriculum and instruction departments. Often the technology leaders are the primary advocates for one-to-one programs, and public support for these initiatives runs high. But getting ownership from district curriculum leaders for the selection and adoption processes for digital curricula remains a challenge. Districts that have been most successful in adopting and integrating digital curricula in classrooms are those where the academic and technology departments are closely aligned.

Additionally, the availability of free, high-quality, digital Open Educational Resources (OER) continues to grow, as does the number of teachers independently using these tools with their students. Some deep-pocket foundations, nonprofits and educator consortia are developing OER materials and offering them to schools. However, usually for the same reasons cited above, districts have been slow to adopt these materials to replace or supplement their print textbooks.

Ongoing Digital Curricula Debate
When it comes to digital textbooks and curricula, the "for" and "against" camps are well entrenched. The proponents laud the interactive, adaptive and dynamic potential of digital textbooks, and point to the potential physical consequences of students hauling 20-pound book-laden backpacks. Opponents cite research showing students have greater retention of content when they read from paper, and that many students actually prefer reading from books rather than screens.

The debates will no doubt continue, as will schools’ ongoing adoption of one-to-one student device initiatives. But someday in the not-too-distant future, print textbooks will become relics of the past. And when they do, it will be because a compelling case was made for the effectiveness and affordability of digital curricula on which both tech advocates and educators could agree. Until then, a sturdy backpack will continue to be a requisite part of students’ back-to-school shopping.