Digital Textbook Experiment Hits a $2 Million Snag

Fairfax County, Virginia schools will be purchasing traditional textbooks for their students after a short trial with web-based mathematics texts hit a snag.

The district chose to proceed with the web-based books for math after an abbreviated pilot program that employed the digital texts for social studies proved to be a success. However, shortly after deploying math e-textbooks, parents complained that some students lacked access to a computer outside of school — something required for the use of digital texts.

Parents also raised concerns with the books necessitating the purchase of an expensive broadband internet package. In addition, students were having issues with usability of the new texts, saying they were difficult to understand and confusing.

Compatibility issues also plagued the texts; sometimes they wouldn’t work with some of the most popular digital gadgets like Apple’s iPhone and iPad tablet.

Being hit by Sandy last month created additional problems. Students who lived for days without electricity were unable to complete homework assignments or to keep up with their studies. To avoid similar problems going forward, some parents ended up spending up to $100 to purchase a hard copy of the book for their kids.

While addressing the problem at a school board meeting earlier this week, district administrators said that schools facing difficulties should feel free to purchase hard copies for use in class and at home. In total, equipping each student with a copy will cost the district roughly $2 million.

Board members also asked district administrators to consider implementing different standards when determining when a transition to digital learning materials is appropriate.

The turnaround serves as a warning to anyone who has predicted in the past several years that traditional textbooks are definitely on their way out. When Fairfax schools introduced online social studies textbook for the first time in the fall of last year, Emma Brown of the Washington Post was rather confident in her assertion that this was the beginning of the end of expensive and cumbersome traditional texts.

Those are two concrete changes that are easy to imagine, even if the school district hasn’t entirely figured out how to bridge the digital divide between poor and middle-class students. But it’s harder to envision how technology could make big, deep changes that would fundamentally change teaching and learning.

This incident also raises questions about whether schools around the country are ready to transition to digital learning materials as they are being encouraged to do by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In October, during a speech at the National Press Club, Duncan called on states to begin this transition as soon as possible.

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