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Digital Textbooks Not Trouble Free

California recently announced that ten free digital high school math and science textbooks are now available for use in California classrooms. The proponents of online textbooks are very pleased. Digital textbooks are seen as just one part of technology that will lead the way in educational reform of the future.

Critics, however, point out that the online materials fall short of state standards and that the actual costs of using them, including infrastructure and training, have not even been addressed.

The idea that these online materials do not meet state standards is being hotly debated in California right now. Governor Schwarzenegger’s top education adviser, Glen Thomas, states that the texts do meet the state standards. He asserts that the digital textbooks were reviewed by content specialists who deemed them to meet state standards.

But critics point out that a report accompanying the online texts shows that the digital textbooks appear to meet fewer of the state standards than originally thought. It seems like both sides need to further investigate this aspect of the online texts and come to some agreement.

Educators say they are looking forward to online content taking a bigger part in classroom instruction. But they raise a valid concern. What infrastructure will be required to deliver the digital materials? Will schools decide they need wireless Internet access? . If it is decided that wireless Internet access is necessary to utilize digital textbooks, who will pay for it? Educators have a right to ask.

To save money, many schools are foregoing the usual adoption of new hardcover textbooks. One proponent points out that digital texts can be projected on the screen for classroom ceiling or printed chapter by chapter. An analysis shows that printing a digital download within the school is far cheaper than purchasing new textbooks.

That may be true from a surface view, but what about the teacher time? Teachers are already hard-pressed, and it would be an unnecessary burden to expect them to print copies of downloadable textbooks. Even if they don’t do that printing themselves, it will use up valuable classroom planning time to even organize the printing of digital downloads.

And what about the mechanism of delivery itself? Students will need to be taught expert search methods to find the information they seek. A hardback textbook contains a table of contents and a detailed index. Relatively speaking, it is quite easy to find the pertinent chapter or page that contains the information being sought. Have the digital textbooks been designed for ease of search? Will the students need to be taught how to search, or do they already know? It is likely that both teachers and students will need training in how to use a digital textbook. And who will pay for that?

Many educators expressed concern that students from disadvantaged socioeconomic background might not have equal access to the material. Will it be up to the teachers or to the students to assure that they have a copy of the text they need every night to complete assignments? Whose job should it be? Districts are required by law to make instructional materials available to students in class and at home. Hardcover textbooks have always automatically created compliance with the law. Without hardcover textbooks, will it be more difficult or will it be easier to assure that each student has access to the materials he or she needs on a daily basis?

Another alternative, proponents assert, is that the digital textbooks could be accessed in public libraries. This sounds good in theory, but transportation to a public library can be a financial hardship. Also there are time limits on Internet access computers at some public libraries. And it is not usually free to print out materials from a public library. This suggestion of using public libraries does not seem to keep the needs of students from a low socioeconomic backgrounds in mind.

Others assert that the students without computers at home should be able to go to the school library and access to materials. In some cases this would create a new problem as they might miss the transportation home. And that would create hardship on their family.

It will be interesting to see how many schools follow California down the road to digital textbooks. Only time will tell if digital downloads solve an economic hardship or create new problems for today’s schools.


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