Going off the books?
February 8th, 2012
12:10 PM ET

Going off the books?

By Carl Azuz, CNN

The Obama Administration recently called for school systems nationwide to replace textbooks with e-readers, like iPads, Kindles and Nooks. The government hopes that the tax dollars set aside for traditional textbooks will instead be used to purchase electronic devices – and that every American student will have an e-reader by 2017.

The U.S. Department of Education hails technology in the classroom as beneficial to everything from students’ motivation to their technical skills to collaboration among peers. Electronic editions of textbooks would, in theory, be easier to update. It wouldn’t take a new edition and printing to reflect Pluto’s loss of planetary status, for example; you’d just download the updated material.

But whether this is cost efficient depends on whom you ask (and what you buy). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a strong supporter of digital learning, says that America spends about $7 billion on textbooks every year, which works out to roughly $90 per student across all grade levels. An undiscounted iPad costs $499, and a Kindle Fire is priced at $199.

Assuming textbook companies agree to make their content digital, it could turn out to be significantly cheaper than hardcover books. Apple is planning some digital textbook offerings for $14.99 or less (after you’ve bought the iPad). But part of the value inherent in hardcovers is the fact that they last years. Would e-readers survive lockers, bus and bike rides, pep rallies and rain? And what happens if they’re broken or stolen – how many backups do you need?

There are also concerns about income gaps: Would lower-income students be at a disadvantage if they didn’t have internet access at home? And at least one English professor, Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein, has questioned whether e-readers – with slick graphics, clickable words, and scrolling text – could promote scanning of material instead of truly comprehending the printed word.

So if the SAT is issued on paper…

It seems it’s only a matter of time before textbooks go digital. The common hope here is that however quickly that happens, it will result in a better education for our students. Otherwise, class, please open your books and turn to page 168.

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Filed under: Carl Azuz • Curriculum • Policy • Practice
soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. jim miller

    Digital textbooks are the future, and the sooner this future arrives the better it is for us. I must say, that although this recent push by the administration for going digital is little late in coming, it’s promising all the same. As far as the monetary aspect of this “digital evolution” is concerned, I hold the opinion that if you are flexible about choice of the device, you will always have great OERs for digital textbooks, like CK-12 FlexBooks(www.ck12.org) which are free and customizable K12 digital textbooks that can be used on any device.

    February 22, 2012 at 12:52 am |
  2. Leila

    I really love the idea! I teach high school literature and several of my students bring their Kindles and IPads to school to read a classic rather than checking it out of the school's textbook room. The fact that they can highlight text is really a plus. But these are students who are avid readers and highly motivated and who asked their parents to buy them these devices BECAUSE they love to read anyway! The problem I foresee is mentioned in the article, namely that students may be inclined to "scroll" through pages without really "reading". However, that happens with "real books" too. I envision schools with IPads, laptops, notebooks, AND big libraries. Now that would be GREAT for teachers and students! Some of my students bring their notebooks or laptops to take notes from lectures. They also complete their assignments in class on their devices. This facilitates efficiency and it is expedient. Let's move into the 21st century at long last.

    February 15, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  3. tnail

    I have tried and tried to purchase text books for my Kendle but find the move to online books is very very slow. If they want this to happen, the government needs to push to get books converted. Cant use whats not there.

    February 14, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  4. andrew may

    I think that textbooks are going to go the way of the newspaper- technology will slowly replace textbooks like news websites have pushed out "today's news which is really yesterdays.

    February 12, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  5. jon

    e-Readers are OK. Paper books are the absolute best, especially for textbooks. I'm not liking where this is going. This sucks.

    February 12, 2012 at 7:10 am |
  6. Mom of Lots

    True on images being small. I doubt ereaders could be used for EVERY text. However on the objection that it is easier to mark up "real" texts-that is true, but you can't mark up a text owned by a school. College students, yes, can mark up texts. For K-12 kids, that is pretty much forbidden. So the ereader becomes an improvement.

    February 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  7. jcg

    English professors don't like technology? Never would have guessed that one.

    February 10, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • JPL

      They should give voucher so parents/students can purchase their own books for school. This is a waste of money, and I can always see the over spending on this right here.

      February 10, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  8. Josie Behnke

    I don't know about this, yes I can see this happening in a few years, most schools use lap-tops regularly. I can see this saving money as well. But until they get a kindle where you can write notes in it or highlight it, at least in college...it will be a while before the students or professors will use them. My text books are all high-lighted so that way I can go back and reference them or use them to study for tests.

    February 10, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Vicki

      I have downloaded a couple of textbooks on my iPad. You can absolutely highlight and make notes on the ebooks – very cool! There are many other features that are very valuable. I like the feature that allows the book to be read in many languages, an instant dictionary, visuals, videos, a quick check up quiz option to see if you are understanding and so many more features. I can't find a downside beyond the initial cost, but well worth the money when you consider the benefits!

      February 11, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • joe

      its called an iPad....

      February 12, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  9. Sally K

    Overall I think this is a great idea and it is the "future", but until there is a cheap and easy way to fix a cracked screen...I don't think e-readers will be cost effective in the long run.

    February 10, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  10. Quadg

    Textbooks are not just about reading, how are you supposed to make notes in the margin, or underline important points. in an electronic verison. revision is so much easier if you havre the book marked to the point where you dont need to read the whole thing again to remember.

    February 10, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  11. Scott

    It is not far that textbooks can be replaced by an e-book reader such as kindles because aside from its convenient of bringing anywhere, you can possibly had all the copy of books needed in your classroom by just having this device.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  12. Mary Hatch

    Let's see. Replace books with ereaders? Seems you need to first find the readers.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  13. gerga3ga23ga3g

    e-readers are OK for novels but I'm glad I never had to use one for a textbook.

    February 9, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  14. Dawnarie

    E-readers are great, just not great for reference books. I know on my Nook it really is a pain to try to flip back and forth to find sections in the book, plus the photos and diagrams are way to small, even going up to Extra Extra large font size.

    February 9, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • ckelley116

      I totally agree. I'm a writer as well as an avid reader, so I have lots of reference books both on the subjects I'm writing about and the craft of writing in general, and I refuse to buy those books for my Nook. In addition to flipping between sections, it's just easier to mark up a paper book with notes and go back to them later.

      February 9, 2012 at 8:27 am |
      • Thomas I Succok

        Wow! You are very impressive....give me a break... "I am a writer and avid reader" Thanks for your street creds.

        February 10, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  15. Avirachan Johny

    Good one.....

    February 9, 2012 at 2:50 am |
  16. Harley

    i really do think this could be a better learning system for each child because the world is so technology advanced more students own ipods or iphones it would be a good learning experince for teens

    February 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • ryan

      Amen! Halileur!!

      February 8, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  17. Gail D'Apolito

    Do we actually think that we can convince the e-book companies to charge the school system by device and not by user?

    February 8, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • vintage 274

      As a career educator, it seems to me that schools would pay not only for one device per user but also the rights to the printed material that is loaded onto the device FOR EACH CLASS. That's where publishers would make their money. But it would be much cheaper than textbooks which are very expensive to create and then print and distribute. Eliminate print and distribution costs, and money is saved at the consumer level.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:46 am |