FCC Devising a Plan to Transition Schools Away from Paper

The Obama Administration has been a major supporter of increasing technology in the classroom, a fact made explicit by the recent pronouncement by the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that schools should all be looking to convert to digital textbooks in the next ten years. Now, to make this plan a reality, some of the biggest players in the digital publishing industry have combined forces with the Federal Communication Commission to see how best to accomplish the goal of putting tablets into the hands of all U.S. students while kicking traditional paper textbooks to the curb.

Mashable.com reports that the annual expenditure for textbooks around the country has now topped $7 billion, and because of the high cost of replacement, schools typically continue to use books that are as much as a decade out of date. According to FCC analysis, converting schools to digital textbooks could generate nearly $3 billion in annual savings — even after taking into account the fact that each hardware device needed to take advantage of the e-book format would cost nearly $250 today. Most of the savings will come from buying in bulk and the inevitable drop in price that is typical as technology becomes more ubiquitous.

Based on these parameters, the future savings would result in saving $60 per student, which considering there are more than 49 million students in public schools equates to nearly $3 billion in savings — nearly half the price of traditional textbooks today. Still, how can a price reduction of $100 in tablets only result in a $60 savings? Other factors besides the fixed price of the tablets account for the difference.

Recent examples of the widespread use of tablets, computers and smartphones in schools have demonstrated that perhaps the FCC estimates don’t take all factors into account. For example, the New York City Department of Education has had to recently ban the use of all on school Wi-Fi because the immense data costs were beyond what school tech budgets could handle. In light of that, Mashable’s Margaret Rock considers how intelligent a recent $1 million expenditure to equip all the city’s instructors with iPads really was when the infrastructure might not be able to handle the additional load.

Further complicating the issue is that research comparing the academic results of students who use traditional textbooks to those who use digital versions hasn’t been conclusive. A small pilot program which was run by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the largest publishing companies in the country, showed that students in Riverside Unified School District, California who used digital Algebra 1 texts on Apple’s iPad earned higher standardized test grades than their peers who used traditional books.

At the same time, there seems to be a growing amount of research suggesting that retention is a problem with information gained from a computer screen as opposed to reading from the page of a book.

For example, Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England, conducted a study on the effects of e-books on memory, “bombarding” psychology students with questions on economics on digital and printed versions of texts, and found learning differences.

Students using digital versions of the unfamiliar material had to read the same information several times to gain the same level of knowledge as print readers. Students reading printed books seemed to more fully digest and understand the material.