Duncan: US Schools Must Transition To E-Textbooks ‘Soon’

While delivering remarks at the National Press Club, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a hint of what he thinks the classroom of the future will look like — and one thing he doesn’t see is a heavy paper textbook. Duncan wants the U.S. to emulate the example set by South Korea and commit to converting to e-textbooks entirely in the next several years.

It’s no wonder that Duncan would look towards South Korea for lessons. Not only is the country considerably more technologically advanced, it also consistently outperforms the U.S. when it comes to student achievement. South Korea’s own plan of going completely paper-free by 2015 might set too aggressive a deadline for the U.S. to meet, but according to the Education Secretary, we should be taking steps to reach a similar goal.

Fox News explains that getting rid of paper involves more than just a room of scanners buzzing away as the information inside traditional textbooks is converted into a format readable by a digital gadget.

Proponents describe a comprehensive shift to immersive, online learning experiences that engage students in a way a textbook never could. A student studying algebra might click to watch a video clip explaining a new concept or property. If they get stuck, interactive help features could figure out the problem. Personalized quizzes ensure they’re not missing anything — and if they are, bring them up to speed before they move on to the next lesson. Social networking allows students to interact with teachers and each other even when school isn’t in session.

At this time, while more school districts find themselves forced to tighten their belts by a slowing economy and shrinking state budgets, digital textbooks could prove an additional source of saving — a definite benefit to converting to e-books in addition to the flexibility inherent in the medium.

It is hard, however, to talk about digital learning without focusing on the benefits of flexibility. Using e-textbooks allows schools to view curriculum not as a cudgel, but as a list of suggestions that they, for themselves, get to decide how to implement, helps to make going digital so appealing.

School districts may also be able to pick and choose their curriculum buffet-style. A district might choose one publisher’s top-notch chapter on Shakespeare, but follow it with another publisher’s section on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”

However, switching requires more than just a suggestion or a directive from Washington. Each state uses its own criteria for selecting academic materials, a process that will need to be adopted to contend with the new medium.

Still, many are already making progress. According to Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, at least 22 states have taken steps to make their classrooms more e-book friendly.

Until recently, Levin said, states struggled to collaborate because each had its own curricular standards, a particular burden for smaller states. That burden has been eased now that 48 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards, a set of uniform benchmarks for math and reading.