Most students have long labored under the twin tyrants of having to carry massive and heavy loads of books around campus and, for college students, having to come up with the massive and heavy sums needed to pay for the tomes.
Some college texts can cost north of $125 and the overall book bill for a semester can top $600.
California already has a law on the books requiring publishers to have e-versions available of all textbooks by 2020, but that seems a long way off.
Wednesday the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked publishers to shorten that time to no more than five years.
The new push to make digital textbooks the standard comes only two weeks after Apple Inc. announced it is selling electronic versions of some high-school textbooks in its online bookstore for reading on the iPad tablet. Apple says it already has 1.5 million iPads in schools for educational use. Making the change is necessary for another reason as well: Other countries are already there, or preparing to get there quickly.
Clearly, the advantages of digital textbooks are enormous: They’re cheaper, to produce and buy; they offer interactivity; and they’re universally available.
And while some tablets can be relatively expensive, the cost pales in the face of what it costs to provide students with textbooks. About $8 billion a year is spent on providing textbooks for K-12 students in the U.S., say textbook publishers.
The potential benefits are significant. Providing digital textbooks does not mean just taking print products and scanning them for electronic access. The digital environment is incredibly rich in terms of learning and teaching potential.
Children or adolescents studying digitally have access to video and interactive maps, along with links to research and explanatory resources. They can conduct online science experiments, and get audio for learning a different language.
But before the transition can happen, at least two issues need to be resolved: Many schools lack the broadband capacity that is necessary for tablets and laptops. And in cash-strapped California, just finding the upfront money to fund the purchase of the devices will be a challenge.
Neither problem is insurmountable. Many innovative public and private school systems, including some in Santa Cruz County, already have moved to tablet-based textbooks.
Sadly, many schools are today forced to consider yet more cutbacks rather than increasing their broadband capacity and helping fund the purchase of tablets or laptops.
If a teacher has to dig into her own pocketbook to pay for basic supplies, and dog-eared textbooks are passed along until they finally fall apart, the digital world can seem a long way off.
If the federal government wants to push this necessary transition, then we urge leaders to seek congressional funding to make it happen. The FCC’s Genachowski said he’ll convene a meeting next month and invite key leaders from tech companies such as Apple, Intel and Microsoft to get the digital textbook project moving faster. The government Wednesday released a 67-page “playbook” to schools that promotes the use of digital textbooks and tries to provide answers for the inevitable questions that will come up.
In California voters will be asked in November to approve higher taxes to fund schools. If the revenues are targeted to specific programs, we think voters will be inclined to go along.
So here’s an idea that should be coupled with the tax proposal: Bring schools into the 21st century and provide students with access to digital textbooks..