Reads Like a Book

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For the past century, sheets of paper, imprinted with ink and bound between cardboard covers, have been the state-of-the-art classroom information system.

Small wonder, then, that Joseph Spagnola, the Illinois state superintendent of schools, caused a stir last month when he publicly advocated equipping every student in the state with a laptop computer rather than a stack of textbooks.

"Just as textbooks became fashionable 100 years ago, it is now time for technology and telecommunications to become fashionable today," he told an annual conference of Illinois school superintendents. "In fact, it could be argued that the computer ought to be replacing the textbook as a fundamental basic learning tool. I am an advocate of that."

Spagnola contends that in a world where information can be delivered instantaneously around the globe at the touch of a button, the textbook--as it exists today--is an outmoded artifact of the "factory school."

Whether at school or at home, he says students should be able to tap into such global resources as the Internet, state and local education networks, and cd-rom reference works to get the kinds of information that formerly would have been available only between the covers of a book.

Although Spagnola is perhaps more visionary than many, a growing number of school administrators and textbook publishers share his belief that the surge in electronic media in society as a whole portends a sea change in school publishing.

As publishers develop software products and software developers seek to enter the education market, the line between traditional and electronic publishing is rapidly blurring, with unforeseeable consequences for the textbook industry, schools, and students.

Observers point to several converging trends to bolster their contention that electronic materials will continue to encroach on what traditionally has been considered the textbook market.

One of them is economics. Schools spend $2.16 billion a year on textbooks. But industry analysts routinely peg the potential school market for hardware and software at roughly $4 billion a year. Twenty-one of the 22 states in which textbooks are adopted for use statewide permit state funds to be spent for electronic materials, according to the Software Publishers Association.

Another is the education-reform movement itself. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for example, in its widely admired curriculum standards, calls for teachers to use appropriate technologies, from computers to calculators, whenever possible.

Other trends in the larger society are at work as well. They include:

  • The growing sophistication of computer software, particularly the cd-rom format, which allows text, video, sound, and photographs to be stored on a single disc. The disc not only holds as much information as a shelf of texts, but it often presents that information in different ways, thereby accommodating students with a variety of learning styles.
  • The widespread development of telecommunications networks and efforts on Capitol Hill and in state capitals to deregulate the telecommunications industry that would open new markets for publishers.

    In Texas, for example, the legislature deregulated the industry and won an agreement from telecommunications firms to pay $150 million annually for 10 years into a fund to help wire schools.

    The state already spends $100 million a year for hardware and software compared with $150 million for textbooks, says Geoffrey Fletcher, the Texas Education Agency's associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment, and professional development, and a technology advocate. If the federal government were to deregulate the industry, content could be delivered into schools and homes simultaneously, Fletcher says, with the larger market helping defray the cost of developing electronic materials. Deregulation bills have passed in both the U.S. House and Senate, but lawmakers have not yet met to hammer out a final version.

    "If you look at the education market as the students, and not where the students spend their time," Fletcher says, "then the market all of a sudden becomes enormous."

    Ubiquitous electronic access to information could also create a market for customized textbooks, allowing schools to download and print information on demand. Still, publishers are skeptical that this phenomenon, in early stages at the university level, will take root in the precollegiate market.

    Although they can tailor texts for individual college courses and make money doing it, publishers doubt there will be much demand for customized K-12 materials because students need to master the same basics of 3rd-grade math or 10th-grade chemistry whether they go to school in Cleveland or Albuquerque.

  • A growing use of home computers for education and "edutainment" software that is likely to produce increased demand from parents for quality electronic-learning tools in the schools.

    More than one-third of all households now have computers, and parents are buying more education software than ever before. The value of the home market for education software doubled to roughly a half-billion dollars last year.

Beat 'Em or Join 'Em

The textbook industry itself has in many cases been quick to adapt to, if not be on the leading edge of, the trend toward electronic publishing.

"One of the major changes in publishing in the past decade has been getting involved in the use of technology as a part of the curriculum," notes William Talkington, the president of the Holt, Rinehart and Winston publishing house. "It's a different approach from six or seven years ago when it used to be an add-on. Now, we take principles and concepts at any grade level and look at what medium best delivers the concepts."

Photosynthesis, for example, is a complex concept to understand using the printed word alone. But move the topic to a multimedia format where the process can be simulated in a video clip or animation, Talkington says, and students can more readily grasp it.

Holt Rinehart's competitors also are developing in-house electronic subsidiaries or acquiring businesses with technological expertise.

And relationships are beginning to develop between the education-software industry and traditional textbook publishers to produce multimedia materials, says Jeanne Hayes, the president of Quality Education Data, a Colorado market-research company.

Mecc, a Minneapolis-based software developer with a long track record in the education market, for example, formed a partnership with the Houghton Mifflin Co. to produce an elementary math series.

Even so, Talkington says, the time is far from ripe for the computer to replace the printing press. "We believe that electronic media will have tremendous impact in the future," he says. "Our view is that print is still the most important technology in learning."

Meanwhile, some nontraditional publishers have begun to move into the periphery of the education market, frequently tapping the expertise of those who have helped shape textbooks to produce new electronic works.

MathSoft, a software developer in Cambridge, Mass., that produces one of the world's foremost electronic tools for mathematicians and engineers, is getting ready to market an algebra book for high school students that may provide a glimpse of how the electronic texts of the future will look.

Frank Purcell, who once edited math textbooks for Houghton Mifflin, is overseeing the product's development. Purcell says the new book--which contains traditional text but also allows students to electronically manipulate variables in problems and share their strategies and solutions with others on the World Wide Web--represents a completely new approach to publishing.

"One problem that the textbook publishers have in understanding what to do with the new technology is that their first instinct is to somehow replicate the book in an electronic medium," he says. "The other path is to bring back some form of the 'teaching machine,' in which the computer is used as a framework for practice and response."

Neither approach, he says, begins to take advantage of the new medium.

Publishers, though, say they have no intention of merely duplicating what is in print. Joy Rosen, the vice president for technology sales, says Macmillan/McGraw-Hill is developing software hand in hand with print material to produce an integrated package that ties in to the curriculum. "If I'm teaching a reading lesson," she says, "I want the technology to support, engage, and enrich what the students are doing in the regular reading instruction."

Similarly, when the Microsoft Corp. decided to design an electronic world atlas to complement its Encarta multimedia cd-rom encyclopedia, it recruited Nancy Dixon, a former editor of precollegiate geography textbooks for Holt Rinehart, to oversee its development. Dixon believes that electronic products like Encarta Atlas complement, rather than replace, books.

"I'm a firm believer in, and lover of, the written word," she says. "I think that books are a wonderful thing, and I don't want them to go away. But in the classroom, I think that books will go into the background, and the focus will come to be on the electronic media."

Encarta Atlas is not a textbook and is designed primarily for the home market. But the company is creating an academic version of the product that Dixon believes will be a powerful classroom tool.

"There's so much more that you can put into a multimedia product," she says. "In a textbook, I could put in maybe 600 photographs. In a cd-rom, I can put in 3,000 photographs. I can put a whole lot more text on a cd-rom than I can in a book. And the maps are dynamic."

Encarta Atlas allows students to zoom in on specific countries, obtain specially commissioned film footage of a day in the life of its people, and hear samples of folk music--all at the click of a mouse. Students can then turn to texts for greater depth of discussion on specific topics.

Moreover, Dixon adds, electronic media have a much more rapid turnaround time than print materials, allowing electronic versions of reference works to remain more current. "The frustration with a book is that you finish editing the book, and, 18 months later, the teacher has it on her desk," she says. "I know that geography teachers are particularly frustrated by that."

Teaching Computer Literacy

But the interactivity of such products--in which students use a mouse to click at will among topics that are electronically linked--raises interesting questions about the nature of literacy.

Kyle Peck, a professor of instructional systems at the University of Pennsylvania's college of education, is one of a handful of researchers who believes that "there is such a thing as 'hypermedia literacy' that requires most of the traditional textbook skills and then some."

Inculcating the mental discipline to navigate effectively through a hypertext document, whether on a cd-rom or the Internet's World Wide Web, is a new challenge for educators.

"There's a lot of great information out there, but it is unfiltered," Peck says. "Students can spend a lot of time going down a questionable path," he stresses. "As teachers, we need to understand that. We can help them develop that discipline."

Some observers believe that forays into the education market by such companies as MathSoft and Microsoft may toll the death knell for traditional publishers as independent entities.

"I think that the Microsoft-like companies will eventually swallow the textbook companies," says Donavan Merck, the manager of the California Department of Education's educational-technology office. "What do textbook companies have? They have copyrights, and they have archival materials that are going to be needed by the electronic industries. I don't see it as an 'out to get you' thing. I just see it as a natural progression."

Many observers disagree with that assertion. They argue that the textbook and software markets are too widely divergent and that successful companies in both domains prefer to serve discrete markets.

Rosen of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, in fact, believes that even though software developers introduced technology to the classroom, it will be the textbook publishers who take the technology to a higher plane in the education realm. "They made a stab at it," says Rosen. "They really weren't educators; they were software publishers."

Not All Blue Skies

Even Joseph Spagnola admits that his vision of sending every school child home with a computer is a "blue sky" idea. Indeed, observers from both traditional and electronic publishing see a number of barriers to replacing textbooks with computers.

To begin with, schools generally have a poor information infrastructure. While most schools have personal computers, they typically are outmoded machines incapable of connecting to digital information networks. Moreover, few classrooms are equipped with even basic telephone service to connect to the electronic world.

Publishers are acutely aware of those deficiencies and are skeptical that a critical mass of machines yet exists in the home to counterbalance it.

"It's much easier for a child to take a book home ... than it is to give him a disc," says Talkington of Holt Rinehart.

It's also unlikely that schools will ever have the money to provide every student with a notebook computer, adds Merck of the California education department. Therefore, he says, "the notion should be to put these instruments of learning where they are accessible to all," meaning in schools.

Few teachers, meanwhile, receive the professional development they need to effectively plan and implement technology-based lessons.

Traditional publishers also say that although it's cheaper to distribute information electronically, the research-and-development costs are higher.

And, even if the technological and financial obstacles to electronic publishing were to disappear overnight, many parents and educators have a powerful psychological and sociological attachment to the textbook.

"I'm 59 years old," Merck says. "If I see kids not carrying books, it bothers me. And if they don't come home with books, it bothers me. What the schools have to do for me is to show that the shift [from texts to technology] is better than what I have. There's a major attitude issue with parents that we have to deal with."

Nonetheless, Holt Rinehart and other publishing giants are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in technology for the day when there will be a payoff. "We are investing in it today knowing we will not get returns today," Talkington says. "If we wait until it's available, we'll be too late to have an impact on the market."

Ralph Caulo, the president of Simon & Schuster education publishing, also acknowledges that investment in technological instructional materials is a financial gamble, but one his companyis taking.

Caulo even goes as far as to say that it is the industry's responsibility to push schools in that direction. "There is a great chasm between the haves and have-nots," he says. "If schools don't embrace [the new technology], kids will be further and further behind. That's why schools have to do it, or the gap will be huge."

Vol. 15, Issue 08

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