Six Suggestions to Help with Your Shift to Digital Textbooks

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In spite of the fact that states and districts spend $5.5 billion a year in core instructional content, many students are still using textbooks made up of content that is 7 to 10 years old.

SETDA is leading the charge in vocalizing the need for K12 to make the switch from printed textbooks to digital materials. Below is the executive summary of their report, "Out of Print: Reimagining the K-12 Textbook in a Digital Age."

Technological innovation is driving fundamental changes in all aspects of our lives. This is especially true of digital content, as our use of e-books, downloadable music, streaming television and movies, and online social networks has exploded. However, the explosive growth in our use of digital content seems so far to have eluded many of the 50 million students enrolled in public K-12 education.

In 2012, it is still the exception—not the norm—that schools choose to use digital content, which could be updated much more frequently, or opt to use the multitude of high-quality online resources available as a primary source for teaching and learning.

The reasons are many, but the result is this: Too few schools are exploiting digital instructional content for all of its benefits. While many in education continue to perpetuate the decades-old textbook-centric approach to providing students and teachers with instructional materials, the gap is widening between what technology allows us to do in our lives—how we communicate, work, learn, and play—and how we’re educating our kids.

Nonetheless, it is not a question of if the reimagining of the textbook will permeate all of education, but only a matter of how and how fast. Armed with a cost-effective computing device and the kind of quality digital content that’s becoming increasingly available, the benefits for student learning are many. Digital content can easily be kept up to date and relevant to students’ lives without the cost of reprinting or redistributing print materials such as a textbook. It can be made available anytime and anywhere, both online and offline, and accessible when and where the student, teacher, or parent needs it.

It can be personalized to individual student learning needs and abilities. And, digital content can be far richer and engaging, including not only text, but also high-definition graphics, video clips, animations, simulations, interactive lessons, virtual labs, and online assessments. Instead of fitting students to content, digital content allows the teacher to fit the content to the student.

The primary benefit of digital content may be its flexibility. Crucial to realizing the flexibility benefit are open educational resources (OER), resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others in perpetuity.

States are the key to driving instructional materials innovation. With primary responsibility for determining the process and funding models for instructional materials acquisition in their schools, states have started to implement significant policy changes—in some cases with the support of the federal government—that are giving powerful momentum to the shift from print to digital content.

For instance, Indiana is redefining textbooks and providing flexibility in the use of “textbook funds.“ Texas has enacted a similar definition shift and added an education portal to share content; Utah has begun a significant shift to OER; and Virginia is leveraging other digital initiatives in assessment to support innovative digital content development.

In total, 22 states have introduced either definitional or funding flexibility, launched a digital textbook initiative, and/or launched an OER initiative. Common to virtually all of these efforts are strong state leadership, a culture of innovation, a belief in increased local flexibility in spending and content choice, and strong implementation plans.

Yet, policy changes regarding instructional materials are not sufficient to ensuring that digital content gets into the classroom and is used effectively. In making the shift to digital instructional materials, states and districts need to address the following interrelated issues:

• Sustainable funding for devices. Without easy access to devices, students cannot take full advantage of the digital content (and these same devices can and should be leveraged for other educational ends, including online assessment and access to online learning).

• Robust internet connectivity. States need to plan for and implement a network and internet infrastructure sufficient to enable pervasive, simultaneous use of devices for instruction, assessment, and school operations.

• Up-to-date policies and practices. In addition to state policy changes, local districts need to examine their policies and practices to jettison those that inhibit the use of digital content and look for initiatives and incentives to encourage its use.

• Prepared educators. Colleges of education need to prepare teachers to use digital content, and districts need to provide opportunities for sustained professional learning, including online access to communities of practice.

• Intellectual property and reuse rights. A key benefit of digital content is its flexibility, but content should be licensed to take advantage of the flexibility and encourage sharing and customization.

• Quality control and usability. If digital content is vetted at the local level and tagged in such a way as to make it easy to find and use in a variety of situations, it saves teachers time and helps them to personalize learning in their classrooms.

• State and local leadership buy-in. Leadership is a key factor in changes in state policy and it is no less important at the local level. Leaders provide the necessary vision and support to enable successful implementation planning.

Given current trends and building upon the real-world experiences of states and leading districts, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) offers the following recommendations for K-12 policymakers, school leaders, and publishers:

Recommendation 1: Complete the Shift from Print-Centric Textbook Adoption Practices to Digital Resources within Five Years

SETDA recommends that states and districts commit to beginning the shift from print to digital instructional materials with the next major “textbook” adoption cycle, completing the transition by no later than the 2017-18 school year. If the commitment is not made immediately, major funding will go toward providing students and teachers with static, inflexible content that will be in place for 5 to 10 years, depending upon the length of the cycle.

Recommendation 2: Develop a Vision and Roadmap for Completing the Shift

SETDA recommends that state and district leaders establish a clear vision for the use of digital and open content and clearly communicate that vision to school leaders, teachers, publishers, technology companies serving the education community, and the public at large. The vision should look beyond textbooks alone and consider flexibility, quality, and effectiveness of all materials. Any such vision and roadmap should pledge at a minimum to:

Recommendation 2a: Eliminate Unnecessary Regulations and Enact Supportive Policies.

States, districts, and publishers must re-examine and revamp all processes for the creation, acquisition, and use of instructional materials to take advantage of what digital content can bring to the education sector.

Recommendation 2b: Invest in Infrastructure and Devices to Support the Shift. States and districts should pursue cost-effective collaborative purchasing of student computing devices and increase flexibility of funding in dedicated funding streams to optimize the use of digital resources in schools and to leverage the larger print to digital shift in education across assessment, instruction, and professional learning.

Recommendation 2c: Ensure Effective Implementation of Digital Policies. To be successful, states and districts must identify and disseminate effective models of implementation on how to make the shift from print to digital, including for teacher preparation and support.

Recommendation 3: Ensure a Vibrant Marketplace for Digital and Open Content

SETDA recommends that policymakers, educators, and business leaders collaborate to create alternative, flexible models for the creation, acquisition, distribution, and use of digital content. Implementing these recommendations and reimagining an integral element of the educational system within five years is a daunting task. Yet, as this report highlights, leading states and districts have traveled partially down the path already—and our students are ready. If we are serious about offering a college- and career-ready education for all students, we do not have the luxury of further delay.

It is past due time to reimagine the future of the K-12 textbook. Join us.

Download the report at

Report Authors  Geoffrey Fletcher, Dian Schaffhauser and Douglas Levin

Read more