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Textbooks Are Finished

It’s time to trade them for computers.

There was a time when textbooks added value to K12. In the old days, (1) content was truly scarce, and age-appropriate content was scarcer still; (2) teachers came to rely on the instructional resources such as the lesson plans and assignments that accompanied textbooks; and (3) students spent a significant portion of the school day, upwards of 50 percent, with their noses in textbooks, absorbing content.

But in the Internet era, the first and third of those three value propositions are no longer true. First, content is readily available on the Internet. "I do not use the textbook in my class, because everything I would use from the textbook I can find online," says Derek Burtch, a high school English teacher from North Union, Ohio. Second, in classrooms engaging in projectbased/ problem-based learning, students spend no more than 5 percent of their time absorbing content; rather, they are using their computing devices nonstop, creating and sharing content.

Not surprisingly, teachers still need instructional resources—but these resources could be purchased online from educational publishers. While publishers could produce such materials as software or applications at a fraction of the cost of a comprehensive textbook, it's not clear that doing so would make for a healthy business for publishers, who are accustomed to selling high-volume, high-priced textbooks with a high profit margin.

In the United Kingdom, for example, Pearson has become a leading provider of a computer-based "learning platform"— a BlackBoard-like application geared expressly for primary and secondary education. Pearson is clearly anticipating where its future revenues will be coming from—and it's not going to be from paper textbooks.

Textbooks for Computers

The money saved from not buying those comprehensive textbooks, then, can be used by schools to purchase networked computing devices that provide access to Internet-based content. A number of states (Texas, Indiana, Florida, Virginia, Arizona, Iowa and Tennessee, to name a few) have already made it legal for schools to purchase technology with monies originally earmarked to purchase textbooks.

Indeed, the only way schools will find the money to buy computing devices is if they no longer buy textbooks—a fair trade-off given that, in the 21st century, a computing device is certainly more important for education than a textbook.

To be clear, we're not referring to digital textbooks, which are simply versions of paper textbooks that publishers typically provide if the paper-based version is purchased. A digital textbook is still a textbook, and as we have already stated, textbooks are no longer needed.

Open Source: A Provocative Idea

That said, there is no free lunch. Online content—good online content—needs to be created, organized, displayed, and most importantly, vetted. While much of this content may be available for free, it is not free to produce. Fortunately, organizations such as the JAS ON Foundation,, and the Verizon Foundation's are doing just that and making first-class content appropriate for education available free on the Internet. Schools are generous, sharing organizations, and the open content movement is growing fast.

The Future Needs to Be Now

While the argument for online content seems obvious, the educational blogosphere is awash in the following type of thinking: "It will be a few more years before we have an affordable device that makes sense for a move to digital content. The right tools have to be in place first, and then it will take time to train teachers. All good things take time. If you try to plunge into something too fast, you can quickly get into trouble."

Indeed, whether it is online content, project-based learning, portfolio assessment, or whatever discontinuous change that is proffered, education's response tends to be "go slow." We can't go slow, what with the dropout rate in America's cities hovering at 50 percent! The deadly seriousness of the education situation in America makes Dr. King's 1963 observation on racism one that is appropriate to us in education: "This is no time to engage in ? the tranquilizing drug of gradualism."

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow Learning in Ann Arbor, Mich. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder of GoKnow.