Thought Textbooks Would All Be Gone by Now? Well, Think Again

By Andrew Trotter — September 18, 2007 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed statements made by Trace Urdan, a San Francisco-based investment analyst at Signal Hill Capital Management LLC, to Karen Billings, the vice president of the education division of the Software and Information Industry Association and to Mark Schneiderman, the director of education policy at the association. Also, the earlier story should have attributed to Mr. Schneiderman, not to Jay Diskey, a statement that the SIIA’s 2004 policy document represented the group’s current viewpoint.

Compared with a couple of years ago, children in many California schools have one less tome to lug in their backpacks.

Instead of standard textbooks, they use what publisher Pearson Education Inc. calls its “digital path” to California’s elementary history and social sciences curriculum. Since the state school board approved it in November 2005, districts serving about half the state’s students have bought the series, which combines online multimedia resources and activities with slim, printed “work-texts.”

That digital path might seem an obvious one for U.S. textbook publishers to take. After all, K-12 students routinely tote cellphones, iPods, and even laptops along with their lunchboxes.

But even though some schools and educators have embraced all-digital curriculum materials, the Golden State’s experiment remains largely an exception. While the major scholastic textbook publishers now widely offer digital accessories such as CD-ROMs and Web sites as supplements to their core printed products, experts say that they are hardly rushing down the digital lane.

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Read a transcript of our online chat on Electronic Textbooks.

Instead, the major publishers in the $6.2 billion elementary and secondary market are tiptoeing through a thicket of issues involving educator preferences, student access to technology, and state and local textbook-adoption practices. Taken together, analysts say, those forces are slowing what some thought would be a speedy transition from a market in which the printed word is king to a world dominated by digital delivery.

“There have been a lot of forecasts over the years that the printed textbook is dead,” said Jay A. Diskey, the executive director of the Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers Inc. “It’s clearly not.”

Uneven Access

In Mr. Diskey’s view, most educators still prefer printed textbooks both for core academic courses and for secondary subjects and electives. “The market still wants books—they remain highly portable, they contain a lot of information and tend to hold up for a long time,” he said.

Textbooks remain entrenched in most schools, often seen as the curriculum in a nutshell, an aid to teachers, and an expected part of the school experience.

Many California elementary schools have swapped printed textbooks for a history and social studies series from Pearson Education that is mainly delivered via the Internet.

Printed textbooks are often criticized, however, for their high cost, the physical strain their weight places on pupils, and the waste that comes from pulping them every six or 10 years.

But some observers say teachers still don’t have enough training in technology to embrace digital instructional materials widely.

Trace Urdan, a San Francisco-based investment analyst of the education industry at Signal Hill Capital Management LLC., said training seemed to be one reason why a K-8 science curriculum that includes digital and hands-on activities has not caught on in many California districts.

Known as the Full Option Science System, it was developed at the University of California, Berkeley, under a grant from the National Science Foundation. “In districts where they didn’t adopt” the program, Mr. Urdan said, “we heard over and over again that the [district] textbook committees like it, but it required too much training of teachers.”

Generational issues also seemed to matter, he said: “Younger teachers loved it; older teachers didn’t.”

Yet even more than teacher preferences, some educators say, uneven access to technology is holding back electronic alternatives to textbooks. Not all students have Internet-connected computers readily available at home, for example. Convenient access in schools is also an issue.

“We have a lot of technology in our schools, but most is not in the classroom, where the students are every day,” said Anita G. Givens, the senior director for instructional materials in educational technology at the Texas Education Agency.

In a survey of 1,000 school officials in U.S. districts that enroll 4,000 or more students—released last fall by two market-consulting firms in education—66 percent of curriculum directors said that a “bulletproof infrastructure” is the most important factor in adopting a primarily digital curriculum. The San Diego-based Greaves Group and the Hayes Connection, in Littleton, Colo., reported that finding in their “America’s Digital Schools 2006" report and said it indicated skepticism about the state of schools’ electronic infrastructures.

Yet the survey also found that curriculum directors expected schools’ expenditures for digital supplemental materials to triple over the next five years.

Adoption Panels Cited

Publishers complain that state textbook-adoption policies are resistant to digital materials, according to a 2007 survey by the EPE Research Center. Of the 21 states that have such policies, 17 will accept digital curriculum to be considered for formal adoption, which allows schools to buy textbooks and other instructional materials with state money.

But the Software and Information Industry Association, or SIIA, a Washington-based trade group that includes many publishers, claims that the state and district adoption committees often use reviewers with little experience in evaluating electronic learning resources and in using classroom technology.

And the panels generally don’t accept pricing models that the publishers prefer, the association argued in a 2004 policy document that Mark Schneiderman, SIIA’s director of education policy, said represented the group’s current viewpoint.

The states that have a state adoption list typically require that the materials on it be sold at a set price covering the full adoption cycle, usually six years. But publishers, if they are expected to provide updated and improved resources, want to be able to increase prices as their costs rise.

Ms. Givens, who runs the textbook-adoption process in Texas, said her state, California, and Florida are “moving very aggressively to try and increase the electronic materials in their process.”

She said the Texas state board of education has beefed up the technological capacity of its textbook review panels, in part by making digital materials accessible at the state’s regional education-services centers.

But she defends the adoption committees’ responsibility to ensure that digital materials, just like textbooks, conform to the states’ academic-content standards, and the rule that if publishers want to change the content it has to go back through the approval process.

Ms. Givens added that the adoption process enacted by the Texas legislature can be fairly criticized, but that school districts can use digital materials not on the state list and can apply for a waiver to receive state funding to help buy them.

Alternatives Sought

Jim Hysaw, the executive administrator of technology of the Garland, Texas, school district, cited history instruction as an example of an area that would benefit from digital textbooks that could be updated electronically.

“History never stops—if it was digital, they could change it on the fly,” he said.

But Mr. Hysaw is unimpressed by the CD-ROMs that many textbook companies include with their print volumes. “They’re not in any standard format, who knows who wrote them for them, they’re a real pain to install, and we don’t ever use them,” he said.

Mr. Hysaw is among those educators who hope that the kind of hand-held “e-book” devices that are being produced for the consumer market—or even iPods with screens—might eventually be affordable for schools.

The Garland technology administrator said he had contacted electronics companies in Taiwan to explore production of a $100 electronic text reader that the 57,000-student district could buy for all its students. It would have a portable screen the size of an Etch A Sketch drawing toy that could display digital texts downloaded from the district’s extensive communications network.

That idea, based on digital manuals used in the aircraft industry, didn’t pan out, Mr. Hysaw said. But even had he succeeded, he said, the publishers might not have sold him the digital curriculum content for the devices.

“The textbook companies are hesitant to give us digital textbooks for some reason,” Mr. Hysaw said. “I guess they’re doing well producing a paper textbook.”

Other schools are getting their digital content by signing up with virtual-course providers or small curriculum companies that offer all-digital course content. Educators point to the interactive functions and embedded assessment tools that make a digital curriculum quite different from simply a digitized textbook.

Many students respond well to the curriculum content presented digitally, said Scott A. Hornblower, the principal of the Cincinnati Virtual High School, a public alternative school.

Students at the school work individually on their courses in special learning labs, using the digital curricula of APEX Learning Inc., but under the supervision of subject-area teachers.

The only printed books the students use are novels and anthologies for English classes and the textbooks that some Advanced Placement courses are required to use.

Using the digital format helps the school offer an individualized approach, Mr. Hornblower said. “It’s very student-centered—kids like learning with technology, learning with each other; they like having flexibility of the time and space,” he said.

Not all students have computers and Internet access at home, he said, but they can download and print out material at will in the labs, and some students use local libraries for access.

Mr. Schneiderman, of the software association, said the publishers will follow with digital textbooks if educators lead them there. “This is area where it isn’t going to be the textbook publishers leading the forces for change,” he said.

A New Generation

On a question about changes in the role of textbooks in the digital schools survey, 80 percent of school curriculum directors agreed that printed texts would gradually be seen as supplementary resources, with their central place being taken by a new generation of digital materials.

If that change happens, the major publishers will probably strive to be part of it. Steven A. Dowling, the chief executive officer of the school division of Pearson, in New York City, said the California history and social sciences curriculum was an experiment that surprised the company with its marketplace success.

Noting that Pearson has several divisions that have developed instructional technology and digital content, Mr. Dowling said the company would ultimately be driven by what its customers want.

“At the end of the day, we’re really trying to help schools to meet their goals in student achievement,” he said. “If digital is the way to do it, I’m confident that we can do it.”


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