There is a lot of talk among legislators, educators, and parents about ebooks in schools (both public and private such as our Catholic Schools)at the k-12 level. I agree that there are potentially great benefits for improving education as well as huge long-term cost savings. This is not an easy move either, and in many of the discussions key points are being overlooked. For example, it’s easy to say “all schools should go to digital textbooks” but an entirely different thing to actually make that happen today since the selection of etextbooks is small and a device has to chosen first. Likewise, it is not a move that should be in haste as wrong decisions can actually detract from education and learning rather than improve it. Can schools move towards digital books and realize benefits eventually? Yes. Here’s my opinion of what needs to take place to get to that point:
- Digital training for educators. One of the issues that some are beginning to realize is that many educators are not “digital literate”. Just like companies that have assumed that “everyone knows how to use this stuff nowadays”, the same assumptions are being made of teachers. Now is the time to start providing the technical training to educators.
- Devices need to be chosen wisely. What is the right device? Some mistakenly think that since it is books that are mostly being talked about, then an eink ereader makes sense for every student. This is wrong and a huge mistake. eInk display is not the best for etextbooks and often times they are not formatted for these types of displays since the publication is much more complex than a traditional book. Tablets are really the device of choice since a student needs to have multi-function for the best learning experience. Likewise, as educational apps and become more abundant, students can have a far richer learning experience on various topics. For example, students learning about the brain can have an interactive 3D rotating model at each of their fingertips. Picture books come to life and have embedded audio (read-to-me) to make early reading more exciting and improving early reading.
- Time for eTextbooks to catch up with selection. eTextbooks are an entirely different publishing world than normal books. They are also far more complex of a publication carefully designed to provide the best learning experience to students. Selection for the k-12 levels is slim right now as publishers are trying to find the best format. Should they be simply digitized like normal books or is individual app format the best? Right now, that has yet to be determined. My personal opinion is that the app format is by far better as the textbook then becomes more of a presentation of the lessons for students providing a far superior educational experience. Regardless, bottom-line is that selection and choice needs to be in place prior to venturing down this path fully.
- Material/content distribution processes put in place. Right now getting the right textbook and materials to the right student for the right class is pretty easy, but do this in a digital world and it’s not so easy. Distributing apps and ebooks to the right devices in the hands of students is a real challenge. Unfortunately, those systems do not currently exist. At the college level students can do this individually and are paying for those personally, but how do you handle that amongst thousands of students who are not personally paying for the materials.
- Backups. Students and educators can not be put in a position of losing everything because a device goes down. Nor should they have to deal with clumsy connections to continuously backup. The cloud is the best option here. Unfortunately, things like Apple’s iPad does not save app purchases “in the cloud” by username. So processes for replacing a device and allowing each student to continue with their work seamlessly needs to be in place. Google Apps for education or Microsoft’s Live @ EDU are one component to giving students access to communication and a suit of online hosted software for writing papers all stored in the cloud. But again this does not provide the solution for important course materials like apps or etextbooks.
- Student email and cloud-based communication. Students in my opinion should have school provided email addresses. As a parent with students graduating high school this past year I am amazed at how much communication still exists in paper format for students. Some teachers use email to students who have personal email addresses but there is no standardization and no controls. Students today will be using communication like email in the future and need to have the hands-on experience everyday now to be better prepared. By providing email addresses by the schools, students will learn to properly use these systems knowing the repercussions of inappropriate use through policy. Companies like Blackboard.com also provide a great service for classrooms to link students and teachers by organizing classes, planners, and course materials all in one spot. Likewise, there are huge cost savings and reduction of downtime for things like inclement weather. Does school and learning really have to stop today because the roads are closed due to snow? No. Sorry kids, ‘snow days’ (or for my fellow Floridians, “hurricane days” which are far less fun than snow days) are eventually going to be things of the past.
- School libraries. Students still need access to borrow additional materials approved and provided by the schools. School libraries can benefit a great deal by going to digital. Providing 24/7 access, cost savings, better access to building robust selections, etc. There are a couple of ways to approach this one of which is Overdrive for schools. This is the company mostly used by public libraries providing lendable ebooks to communities. This is one approach and is built on a licensing model for the materials so the content is treated like physical books in terms of the number of lendable items at one time. Schools also have the option of loading up individual ereaders such as a Nook or Kindle and “lending the library” by lending devices. The benefit here is that since ebooks can be shared amongst 6 devices under these systems, each ebook purchase (which is typically a bit less than print versions) becomes 6 copies. Likewise, libraries can then use existing space in other ways and not have to be concerned about losing materials due to damage.
I think many are on the right path when it comes to digital for schools as there are a great deal of benefits. Getting to what “right looks like” and putting the pieces in place take careful considerations. It is definitely something that conversations and steps need to begin today. Training needs to begin for educators. Things like student digital communications (i.e. email) need to be put in place and be used. School systems can begin building ebooks libraries in one way or another as discussed above now. Once the basic foundations are in place, incremental roll-outs to grade levels can happen over time for an effective transition.
What are your thoughts?