Educators Weigh E-Textbook Cost Comparisons

By Jason Tomassini — May 08, 2012 12 min read
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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).

Source: Education Week

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.

California, Indiana, Utah, and Washington state have all passed legislation promoting digital education content.

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.

Since that announcement, two school districts have agreed to what may be the largest bulk educational tablet purchases in the country.

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. About half the costs are noninstructional, such as broadband connections, infrastructure, and inventory, said James Ponce, the superintendent of the 25,300-student system.

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.

But more than $100 of those estimated per-student savings is associated with improved student discipline, increased teacher attendance, and digital student assessment, highly variable costs not directly tied to digital content. The estimate also assumes the price of a tablet is $250, less than many tablets, including the iPad, which runs between $379 and $700, depending on the specifications.

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.

(Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, and Apple are among members of the Digital Textbook Collaborative, a working group that will meet occasionally to discuss the digital textbook plan.)

“When you add up the cost of your mobile device, the cost of your bandwidth, the cost of your digital programs, the cost of your whiteboards, the cost of your professional development, et cetera, you’re going to spend more money on an annual basis than we spend for paper,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview. “Paper is pretty darn cheap, and it lasts for seven years.”

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 McAllen district, where 67 percent of students live in poverty, hopes those additional learning possibilities make the large investment worth it.

“The iPad isn’t the reason we are expecting improvement. The iPad is the catalyst for engagement,” Mr. Ponce said.

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

Two years ago, the district “wanted something that would invigorate students,” half of whom didn’t have Internet access at home, said Bonnie Kelley, the supervisor of library, media, and technology for the Pinellas schools.

The district began by purchasing 2,350 Amazon Kindle devices for all students at Clearwater High School, paying $177 for each, Ms. Kelley said. By getting an advance on four years of technology funds from the state and asking taxpayers for an additional referendum on the reading budget, Pinellas is purchasing 1,000 Kindle Fires, discounted from $199 apiece, and 7,500 iPads. The system is also buying 3,100 basic-model Kindles, at $68 apiece.

But a number of factors can turn such bulk purchases into money already spent.

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. A high school in Manatee County, Fla., provided laptops on carts for every teacher, but failed to provide professional development to teachers and found the hardware gathering dust.

“We’re all very anxious, and everybody wants the latest, greatest tool, and unfortunately for them, they made those mistakes,” Ms. Tappen said.

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. According to Outsell, a firm in Burlingame, Calif., that analyzes the publishing and information industries, the global textbook market is worth $19.8 billion, with 60 percent of that market including K-12 textbooks.

“I think over time this should be an attractive enough market that the device-makers should want to help this happen,” James Coulter, a co-chairman of the Leading Education by Advancing Digital Commission, a group working with the FCC and the U.S. Department of Education on digital textbooks, said at a March meeting of the groups.

John Sipe, a senior vice president at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, suggested that Apple adopt the same pricing model for its iPads as it does for its iPods: When new versions come out, the older versions drop in price.

For instance, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offers an application, called Fuse, with an interactive library of its algebra content. It costs $40, but is available only on the iPad.

“Right now, the cost becomes a $549 app,” said Mr. Sipe, adding that the company is considering additional platforms for the app. “That’s the reality of where the devices are now.”

Apple declined to comment for this story, but its pricing chart for schools, which offers lower prices for bulk purchases and older iPad models with less memory and connectivity, indicates that price structure may be developing.

At the moment, though, schools have to make a difficult decision about ponying up for the most in-demand instructional tools.

“The iPad is the gold standard,” said Jay McPhail, the director of instructional technology for California’s Riverside school district. “But the problem is the schools don’t have any gold.”

Some districts have tried to meet students’ learning needs while still keeping short-term costs relatively low. Riverside is able to continue its push toward digital materials because it drives a hard bargain.

The 44,000-student district provides a variety of devices to about 12,500 students, but the other students are encouraged to “bring your own technology,” an approach called BYOT. Parents spend money on instructional technology instead of video games or cellphones.

Two-thirds of Riverside students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

To accommodate that approach, the Riverside district asks that publishers provide content accessible on a variety of platforms and offer PDF versions of print textbooks for free. Mr. McPhail said about 40 percent of the district’s content is free, and the other 60 percent is purchased with painstaking due diligence.

“You’ve got to provide added value for me to buy a digital textbook, and it has to be 30 to 50 percent less than print textbooks,” Mr. McPhail said. “We negotiate pretty tough with our vendors.”

“When it comes time to adopt, we’ll remember who worked with us and who didn’t,” he said.

Riverside, which has had to cut its budget by $200 million in recent years, uses money from private donations, grants, Title I funding, and English-language-learner aid to pay for technology.

“Everything besides the general fund,” Mr. McPhail said.

In Texas, the McAllen district’s digital-learning initiative has used the existing budget, private donations, the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, and the schools and libraries program of the Universal Service Fund, or E-rate program, administered by the FCC, to cover schools’ telecommunications costs.

‘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.

“If school were a chessboard, they have been moved from the position of queen to a pawn,” Calvin Baker, Vail’s superintendent, said of textbooks of any kind. “They don’t drive the game anymore.”

Money spent per pupil on instructional materials dropped from $60 to $10 as a result of the initiative, Mr. Baker said.

But Mr. Cohen of Pearson thinks such examples will be the exception, not the rule, because most teachers don’t have the time and means to build their own courses.

Pearson, he said, has the resources and institutional knowledge to package content, integrate it with technology, and research its efficacy.

Educators using open content are “going to get it somewhat right and somewhat wrong,” Mr. Cohen said.

“How many cycles are you willing to go through with children, modifying, before you get it right?” he said. “I’m not sure everybody wants to risk a generation worth of kids because they can’t prove efficacy."In response, Mr. Baker said: “That communicates a lack of trust in the teacher. At the end of the day, teachers are always going to trust another teacher more than someone in a conference room in New York City.”

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.”

Most educators and experts agree, but is that material available on the market and accessible to schools?

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.

The typically slow textbook-adoption process in K-12 and the institutional point-Of-purchase—meaning texts are typically bought by districts, not by individuals, unlike in higher education—will delay any big shift toward digital, the Outsell report concluded. Mr. Ponce, the McAllen superintendent, said 80 percent of his district’s digital content is in PDF form, meaning a static digital copy, and 15 percent is interactive, while teachers create the remaining 5 percent.

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.


“If you want the devices to only look at an electronic textbook—a Kindle at $100 is fine,” said Geoffrey Fletcher, the deputy executive director at the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md. “But that’s a read-only device. There’s no input, no data.”

Publishers acknowledge the need to provide more transformative tools, but suggest the onus lies somewhere between their own companies and school districts.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Mr. Sipe noted state adoption rules can limit how content is delivered and formatted. And districts must be willing to allow publishers and technology companies access to student data in order to improve products, Mr. Cohen said.

Both Mr. Sipe and Mr. Cohen called the iPad textbooks “a start” and said that despite the hype around January’s announcement, truly innovative learning would come with future iterations.

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week as Educators Weigh E-Textbook Cost Comparisons


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