Bringing Digital Textbooks to the Masses

Detroit is, undoubtedly, among the cities hardest hit by the recession. The city's biggest employers have been under siege, and abandoned homes line the streets. Thanks to a $40-million deal with Houghton Mifflin Co., Detroit's public schools are now on the leading edge of a technological movement to replace printed textbooks with computer software. They aren't the only ones.

The contract, which will provide Detroit public school students with Houghton Mifflin's Learning Village software, is one of many similar technology deals being handed out across the country, as more and more school districts replace many functions of textbooks with computers. As textbooks become more digitized, public schools are following the lead of universities, which, with more money to spend and better infrastructure, tend to have better technology. Within the public school community, however, schools in Florida, California, and Texas tend to lead the way.

"California, Texas, and Florida together represent 30% of the national textbook market," says Outsell, Inc., analyst Lisa Abrams. "As they go, the rest of the country goes." K-12 textbooks are big business-those three states accounted for more than $1.1 billion in textbook spending by late 2009 and, in an attempt to reduce costs and increase efficiency, have begun to turn to digital alternatives.

Digital textbooks are cheaper to maintain than their print counterparts for a few reasons. First, there is no wear and tear on software as there is on books, so it doesn't have to be replaced as often. With digital textbooks, a school can also replace one out-of-date section without having to buy a whole new book.

"If even one paragraph is wrong in a hard-copy textbook, the whole thing has to be trashed and reissued," Abrams says. "One of the things that people like about digital textbooks is that there's no cost to updating incorrect info."

Going from print to electronic texts offers obvious advantages in being able to embed links and rich media in schoolbooks, as well as being able to lower costs through greater competition. Without having to publish a physical book, smaller companies, including ones that use open source content, can enter the digital textbook market; many have already done so. Lower costs for publishers and more competition between them means lower costs for school districts.

This past year, Texas' state education department called for bids from online textbook providers, including open source options, while California released a list of state-approved digital textbooks for math and science. Digital textbooks do have drawbacks, though. They require computer access, but many schools are lagging behind in the technology arena.

"The digital divide is a perennial problem," says Houghton Mifflin communications vice president Josef Blumenfeld. "That's the big gap that contributes to the achievement gap." In order to combat this, many companies, including Houghton Mifflin, are donating computers to school systems that are in need.

"This is what students and schools need, and that's what we're going to provide," Blumenfeld says. "We're interested in helping students learn in the 21st century, and we'll do what it takes to make that happen." Companies such as HP are also devising ways to help schools get more computing bang for their buck, with products such as SchoolCloud, ClassLink, and TeachNow. These products are aimed at getting more students connected without giving out laptops. "You just have the screen in the classroom, and all the IT is taken care of somewhere else," Abrams says. "What they want to do is a lot of multiseating."

Houghton Mifflin is also working with community organizations such as libraries and churches to make Learning Village-which, in addition to offering digital textbooks, allows students and parents to check grades and access their student files-available on public computers.

Whether or not they are a panacea for America's public education problems, digital textbooks and other educational technologies are gaining traction in the market. Blumenfeld believes that these initiatives can help less-affluent districts benefit as much from the technology as wealthy ones. "The assessment's very similar in all of these districts-they all have very big problems," he says. "Some of them have solutions, and in a lot of cases, those are technology-driven."