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Schools confront digital textbook challenges

Schools have to navigate a maze of file formats and compatibility issues that can arise from using digital content in the classroom.

The federal Education Department has called for schools to use digital textbooks within the next five years, but what does that mean for school leaders?

For one thing, it means figuring out how to deal with a number of challenges, including—but not limited to—ensuring equitable access, overcoming budget constraints, choosing preferred device and textbook platforms, and building infrastructure and capability.

In Part 1 of our series on digital textbooks, we looked at what textbooks are available to K-12 schools in digital format. Part 2 examines how a few forward-thinking districts are using these new instructional tools—while overcoming many hurdles in the process.

Not an easy transition

As a September 2012 report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) points out, the transition to digital textbooks isn’t an easy one:

  • State laws and policies lag behind changes in technology and its use in schools.
  • Content is vetted in ways that discourage publishers from competing in the market and eliminates many potentially useful materials.
  • There is insufficient access to technology and technical support in schools and homes for a fully equitable shift to digital content in many states and districts.
  • The business model for instructional materials prevents innovation because of its age.

Textbook publishers are still working out new business models to accommodate the shift from print to digital materials. What’s more, schools have to navigate a maze of file formats and compatibility issues that can arise from using digital content in the classroom.

In choosing digital textbook content, school leaders must pay attention to compatibility with the devices that students will use to access that content; for instance, iPads can’t play Flash-based video. Most devices, including iPads and other iOS systems, support the open ePUB file format, which is quickly becoming an industry standard—but Amazon’s Kindle eReader does not.

We recently asked readers what they thought about implementing digital textbooks, and we heard a range of concerns about access issues, financial constraints, and infrastructure capabilities.

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