K-12 Print Needs Persist Despite Digital Growth

By Sean Cavanagh — April 14, 2015 9 min read
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The massive shift in school districts from print to digital content is widely viewed in education technology circles as inevitable—and highly desirable. In many school systems, however, the reality is that the transition is playing out incrementally, and that teachers will be relying on printed materials for years to come, for a host of financial and technological reasons.

Recent surveys and data, interviews with educators and industry officials, and K-12 companies’ development of new products underscore the enduring, widespread demand for textbooks and other paper-based materials in the nation’s schools.

While some districts have leapt aggressively into tech adoption—through 1-to-1 computing programs and other ambitious measures—many school systems clearly favor a hybrid approach, in which teachers and students use both print and digital resources, K-12 leaders and company officials say.

A number of factors help explain print’s continued, strong presence. Many districts can’t afford or are wary of taking on big upfront costs to buy laptops, tablets, and other devices necessary to deliver technology-based content. Districts worry about the time it will take to train teachers to work with new technology and integrate it across schools. Some districts say they lack the Internet bandwidth necessary to keep students online throughout the school day.

Others, meanwhile, worry about impoverished students’ lack of reliable Web access at home, which undermines their ability to keep up with digital assignments.

In some cases, teachers have decided that making a complete or near-complete change to digital content does not make sense for them, because the available resources don’t match what students want.

Such is the case for Robert F. Carbon, who teaches an honors Algebra 1 course at Wellington Landings Community Middle School, in the 183,000-student Palm Beach County, Fla., school district.

Mr. Carbon has been given both print and digital textbooks for his classes. Students use hard-copy texts in class, but he gives them the option of using the print or digital version at home—and about 60 percent of them are choosing print.

Many of his students like flipping back-and-forth by hand through their textbooks, rather than scrolling to-and-fro on-screen, Mr. Carbon explained. Some students complain that when they use digital texts on tablets and other devices, the screens are too small for them to comfortably read and comprehend the complex algebraic problems they’re working through.

“I like the combination of both,” Mr. Carbon said of the print-digital mix. “The fact [the district is] not forcing it one way or another is the way to go. If they went all digital, I would not be a happy camper.”

Pace of Change

District technology officials were asked this year “To what degree to you expect print materials to be replaced by digital resources over the next three years?” Most forecast a big push to incorporate digital— but many also see a continued role for print.


Source: Consortium for School Networking

In many ways, technology has been a tremendous boon to Mr. Carbon’s teaching, he says. Supplemental digital materials allow him and his peers to modify assignments and questions for students. He uses a learning management system to post those modified materials, as well as videos and other content, where students can access them. That technology also lets him communicate easily with parents.

For many educators, parents, and tech developers, the appeal of digital content has been obvious for years, and becomes clearer as the capabilities of technology improve.

Technology-based tools offer far greater potential to create lessons customized to individual students’ needs. Many feature interactive and adaptive features designed to engage and challenge students in ways static print texts cannot.

In some cases, school officials see the potential to save money through digital delivery—though others say promises of financial savings are overstated. Ed-tech backers also cite tangential benefits, such as freeing students from having to lug heavy packs of printed tomes to and from school.

Budget Obstacles

Yet, while recent data show the transition to digital content is well underway in K-12, many schools continue to count on print—often in combination with digital material—and likely will for the foreseeable future.

According to recent research by Simba Information, a Stamford, Conn.-based market research company, print still accounts for nearly 70 percent of the pre-K-12 instructional material sales in the United States, while digital makes up 30 percent of the market.

Over roughly the past decade, sales of print instructional materials in pre-K-12 have gradually fallen from $6.6 billion to $5.8 billion, Simba estimates. Yet those numbers still far exceed sales of digital content, which stand at $2.5 billion, having risen from $1.8 billion over the same period.

In the classroom, more than 90 percent of teachers responding to a 2014 Simba survey said they use digital resources. But that does not mean those teachers are using technology extensively, or that digital resources have replaced print. Seventy percent of the educators polled said they use a mix of both print and digital. Fifty-four percent said they devote no more than 1-2 hours per day using digital resources; only 10 percent said they spend five or more hours doing that.

A recent survey from the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, meanwhile, indicates the broad interest among K-12 officials in adopting digital content, and how far digital has to go to catch up to print.

A vast majority of school technology officials surveyed by the consortium, 84 percent, said they expect their instructional materials to be at least half digitally based within three years. Yet only a tiny portion of those surveyed, 3 percent, expect to be all digital within that period. A much larger portion of respondents, 50 percent, say they’ll be using either a blend of both approaches, or primarily print.

Like other observers of K-12 schools and ed-tech, Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the consortium, predicts districts’ use of digital resources will grow as K-12 officials become more familiar with technology and its benefits. Federal officials’ recent expansion of the E-rate program, which will channel billions of new dollars into school and library broadband connectivity, will help, Mr. Krueger said.

Yet the pace of that transformation will almost certainly come more slowly than tech advocates would like, Mr. Krueger said. Districts’ budgets are overwhelmingly fixed, and consumed by personnel costs, he noted. Technology projects are often forced to compete with a potpourri of other discretionary K-12 priorities for leftover funding.

In many cases, money available for digital “is small unless you reallocate money in other ways,” he said.

Many of the nation’s largest publishers, even as they pour more resources into digital products and exalt their benefits, also remain firmly committed to print—because it’s still a huge share of the market.

Some of the largest education publishing companies say the demand from K-12 customers is overwhelmingly for products that include both print and digital content.

McGraw-Hill Education does not see itself as simply selling textbooks anymore; it instead sells “programs,” that include a mix of print and digital content, said Christine O. Willig, the president of the New York-based company’s K-12 group.

“Right now, we have to ride two horses,” Ms. Willig said. “We’d love to be riding one... [But] everything we’re selling is a blended experience.”

Ed-tech enthusiasts are often confused and disappointed when they see market research revealing the relatively modest pace of digital adoption, observed Ms. Willig. She noted wryly that she was speaking last week from the ASU/GSV summit, a once-obscure event held in Scottsdale, Ariz., that had mushroomed into a vast networking and dealmaking conference drawing company officials and venture capitalists, many of them focused on digital technology.

“There’s a certain force of will among all of these entrepreneurs and investors wanting it to be all digital,” Ms. Willig said, but “there’s still a lot of print in our universe today.”

‘Adaptive’ Print Touted

The “large majority” of Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt‘s school clients also demand a combination of both print and digital, said Lee Ramsayer, the executive vice president of U.S. sales for the company.

Digital’s footprint continues to expand, he noted. In 2014, digital made up more than 50 percent of the company’s billings (similar to gross sales) in K-12—the first year digital outpaced print, and up from 38 percent the year before.

Over the past three years, K-12 investment in tech content has been “moving quickly,” Mr. Ramsayer said. “We’ll continue to transition to digital over the next three to five to seven years, but I think print will still be here in some form.”

Two prominent players in the world of technology recently announced the launch of a new product that relies heavily on technology, but has the print market fully in mind. Knewton, a New York City-based company that creates digital learner profiles of students, and HP Inc., a Silicon Valley company focused on printing and technology systems, said this month they will take “adaptive” tools common in digital products and tailor them for print. (HP recently split from another company, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise.)

The companies want to work with publishers to tag and code print materials, such as textbooks, then allow students and teachers to scan assignments with a smartphone app. Knewton would then use its analytic tools to review students’ past work, input new data, and created tailored academic work in a customized packet. Students and schools can then arrange to have a chapter or relatively small piece of content printed.

Knewton wants to provide “as much personalized learning as possible to any student around the world,” said David Liu, the company’s chief operating officer.

But while “so much of education is being transformed by digital,” he added, “as fast as it is going, the majority of the world still deals with print education materials.”

The shift away from print has been relatively slow even in some affluent districts, such as the 3,200 Marblehead, Mass., school system, north of Boston. Some technologies, such as interactive white boards, are widely used,and digital is woven into instruction in a relatively limited way at various grade levels, noted Maryann Perry, the district’s superintendent.

The district has estimated that a broad tech expansion of devices, and infrastructure would cost $1.6 million. That’s a steep tab for a district with a yearly budget that has fluctuated around $34 million. Ms. Perry said she sees the merits of print, though she and others also want students to have the same advanced tools other districts do.

“There has to be a mix of print and digital,” she said. “Teachers still have to know the child in front of them. That can be difficult with a digital interaction.”

At the same, time, “there’s a new generation of Marbleheaders here,” Ms. Perry said of the community, “and the first thing they ask is, ‘Do you have 1-to-1?’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as Demand for Print Persists Amid K-12 Digital Surge


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