Thursday, May 17, 2012

Educators Weigh E-Textbook Cost Comparisons

Jason Tomassini / Published Online: May 8, 2012

During the first-ever Digital Learning Day, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chief Julius Genachowski unveiled an ambitious plan earlier this year to get schools to switch from print to digital textbooks by 2017.

Dubbed the Digital Textbook Playbook, it's a recommendation for how schools could transform instruction, improve achievement—and save money.

The idea of "getting more" out of textbooks by going digital—with content that's interactive, connected to other classroom technology tools, and distributed through platforms students are familiar with—appeals to many educators.

But some experts, district leaders, and publishers themselves question whether that content is readily available on the market and at a price that can actually save schools money, especially given the cost of the technology required to distribute it.

And even if districts can find the money to make such a switch, will there be enough academic gains to make the investment worthwhile?

Recent policy decisions and multimillion-dollar purchases by districts suggest many aren't waiting for definitive answers.

Different Models

McAllen Independent School District, McAllen, Texas
Enrollment: 27,000 students (67 percent eligible for free or reduced-price meals, 92 percent Hispanic)
Textbook Initiative Started: Fall 2011
Expenditures: $20 million total over five years (three years remaining). $6.5 million on infrastructure, including broadband and equipment; $12.1 million for devices, cases, and apps; $1.2 million for professional development
Funding Sources: E-rate, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, private donations, technology budget, special education budget, Title I funding
Devices Purchased: 27,000 iPad 2s
Digital Textbooks: 80 percent PDF, 15 percent interactive, 5 percent teacher-generated content
Notes: Encouraged local businesses to offer Wi-Fi so students could use devices outside class; students allowed to download music on devices; partnering with Abilene Christian University for research.

Pinellas County Schools, Fla.
Enrollment: 104,000 students
Students With Internet Access: 50 percent
Textbook Initiative Started: March 2010
Devices Purchased: 2,350 Kindles with Wi-Fi ($177 each, four-year shelf life); 1,000 Kindle Fires ($199 each), 3,100 Kindle readers, 7,500 iPads
E-textbook Publishers: CK-12 (free), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson, Cengage Learning
Funding Sources: Voter referendum, advance on school technology funds
Notes: First districtwide client for Amazon Kindle device; sent books to third-party company to “Kindle-ize” books with note-taking capabilities; Amazon delivered customized reading lists through a cloud service to each student.

Vail School District, Ariz.
Enrollment: 11,000 students
Textbook Initiative Started: May 2008
Devices Purchased: 1,300 MacBooks ($800 each); 102 iPads ($500 each); 120 iPod Touches ($200 each); 400 Hewlett-Packard netbooks ($400 each)
Classroom Hardware Purchased: 100 interactive whiteboards, document camera in each class
Expenditures: $500,000 on property and liability insurance, $40,000 per year on Internet services
Course Material Expenditures: $10 per student, down from $60 per student
Notes: District stopped purchasing new textbooks, both print and digital; all course material is free and/or generated by teachers; largest school district in Arizona with all schools rated as “excelling.”

Riverside Unified School District, Calif.
Enrollment: 44,000 students (67 percent eligible for free or reduced-price meals)
Textbook Initiative Started: May 2009
Devices Purchased: 4,500 Hewlett-Packard netbooks ($300 each); 4,500 Android devices, including Lenovo slates and Kindle Fires ($200 each); 3,000 iPod Touches ($200 each); 500 iPads ($500 each)
Digital Content: 60 percent e-textbooks, 40 percent open content
Notes: Students without devices follow Bring Your Own Technology approach; district had to cut $200 million from its budget in recent years; students use Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Fuse Algebra app ($40 each) and CK-12 Flexbooks (free).


Florida has already passed legislation requiring districts to spend half of their instructional-materials budgets on digital content by 2015-16. Alabama is considering a bill that would use $100 million in bonds to give digital textbooks and tablets to students.


The textbook and technology industries have responded. Apple Inc. has sold 1.5 million iPads to education institutions. In January, the "big three" publishers—Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—announced a much-publicized deal with Apple to provide a line of electronic textbooks exclusively for the iPad.


The 135,000-student San Diego district is spending $15 million to supply its students with 25,700 iPads, financed as part of a $2 billion voter-approved bond measure.

In Texas, the McAllen district is buying about 27,000 iPads, roughly one for each student and teacher, in an initiative that will cost the district $20 million rolled out over five years. [snip].

Estimating Savings

Proponents of digital textbooks say they save school districts money, even when factoring in the costs of tablets. In figures cited by the Digital Textbook Collaborative from Project RED, a research project that examines the use of technology in education, a 500-student school can save between $35 and $250 per student per year by switching to digital textbooks.


Independent observers have moved to debunk some of the cost-saving estimates for digital textbooks.

Using numbers from the 11,000-student Palo Alto district, in California, The San Jose Mercury News determined that hardware and content for digital textbooks on the iPad would add up to three times the cost of sticking with print.

And in a widely distributed blog post, Lee Wilson, a technology-industry veteran with experience at companies such as Apple and Pearson, determined that it could cost up to five times more to provide students with an iPad and Apple's digital textbooks.

Even Peter Cohen, the chief executive officer of U.S. curriculum for Pearson, a Digital Textbook Collaborative member, acknowledged that upfront costs for moving to digital content are prohibitive for many districts.


Yet many educators note that most tablets provide more education content—apps, educational gaming, multimedia viewing, and editing—than just textbooks. The iPad textbooks themselves also feature animation, note-taking capabilities, and built-in assessment tools.


The same motivation led to a digital-content initiative in the 104,000-student Pinellas County, Fla., school system.


At the Digital Learning Day unveiling of the digital-textbook plan in February, Mr. Genachowski, the FCC chairman, pointed to South Korea, the world's most connected nation, as a benchmark for digital education.

But a plan there to roll out national digital textbooks in 2015 has been scrapped because, as The Washington Post reported in March, there is concern that students will become too dependent on technology.

Mary Jane Tappen, the deputy chancellor of K-12 public schools for the Florida education department, noted a school that had purchased netbooks in bulk to support online assessment, but the devices weren't actually compatible with the assessments. [snip].


Cheaper Devices Needed

To make digital content more cost-effective to school districts, publishers and educators agree that the price of the devices will have to come down as more enter the market. [snip].


'From Queen to Pawn'

The Vail, Ariz., school district took the idea of cost savings a step further by ceasing to buy not only new print textbooks but textbooks altogether.

In 2008, the district began its Beyond Textbooks initiative. Since then, the 11,000-student district has been flooded with projectors, document cameras, whiteboards, Macbooks, iPads, and iPod touches. It's even close to installing Wi-Fi on all its school buses.

To offset some of the hardware costs, Vail makes use of open educational resources, instructional content made available for free online and in textbooks, provided by such organizations as CK-12 and OER Commons. Vail teachers, and those from partnering districts, create digital and video lessons that are stored and shared on a server.


Open textbooks are, in part, a response to the commercial market not providing the kind of customizable materials that digital-minded educators can find on their own, district leaders say.
The FCC's Mr. Genachowski urged stakeholders to go beyond e-readers filled with PDF files that simply lighten backpack loads to offer students "lessons personalized to their learning style and level, and enable real-time feedback to parents, teachers, or tutors."


According to Outsell's report, "Where Next for Textbooks?," released in March, print textbooks make up 80 percent of the market in the Americas. Digital textbooks and "whole-course solutions" that match Mr. Genachowski's description make up the rest.


With some content available only on certain platforms, and device costs varying widely, many districts must decide to spend large sums on the most comprehensive technology or stay under budget with fewer features.


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