Digital textbooks hinge on connectivity

I wrote earlier this month about Lamar County School District Superintendent Ben Burnett’s goal this semester of finalizing a policy on student use of iPads and other handheld electronic devices.
Burnett wants to move towards eventually using digital textbooks in the district. His first step is to allow students to bring their own personal electronic devices to school to use as learning tools.
“If we wait two to three years to begin thinking about this, our students will be behind,” Burnett told me.
Also, earlier this month, at a news conference in Washington, D.C., Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski, along with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, said the time was now for American students to transition to digital textbooks.
Genachowski issued a challenge at the press conference – to companies, government officials, schools and teachers – to do their part to make sure every student in America has a digital textbook within the next five years.
The U.S. trails countries like South Korea in transitioning to digital textbooks. That country has announced it will begin moving all students to digital textbooks next year.
Genachowski imagined how a digital textbook could help a student who was having trouble doing his geometry homework by automatically inserting a supplemental lesson.
Or, he suggested, a teacher could get instant access to the results of a pop quiz and immediately see which students didn’t understand the concepts so she could offer an extra lesson.
Genachowski said digital textbooks are being used in pockets around the country, but adoption is not widespread and is too skewed to wealthier areas.
“We spend $7 billion a year on textbooks in this country, but digital textbooks – this massive innovation – remain the exception, not the rule,” he said.
Genachowski said one major obstacle remains to implementing digital textbooks nationwide – connectivity.
“About a third of Americans – 100 million people – still haven’t adopted broadband at home,” he said. “Digital textbooks can’t work without this home connectivity.” The FCC is working to address this problem, Genachowski said.
It’s launched a public-private initiative called Connect-to-Compete.
“We’ve seen major companies like Microsoft, Best Buy and the cable companies step forward with significant commitments to promote adoption,” Genachowski said.
Education and communications officials say digital learning is crucial.
Technology-based instruction can reduce the time students take to reach a learning objective by 30 percent to 80 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
And a Federal Reserve study found that students with a PC and broadband at home have six percentage to eight percentage point higher graduation rates than students who don’t have home access to the Internet.