Schools Seek to Pick Up Pace of Online, Digital Learning

Published May 31, 2016

Each year the United States spends about $7 billion on textbooks, but many students are still using books that are seven to 10 years out of date, according to the Federal Communications Commission. One study estimates switching to digital textbooks would save schools $250 per student per year.

Michael Van Beek, director of Education Policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based free-market think tank, says at least one Michigan school district has already replaced books with laptops.

“At the Manistee Area Public Schools, each child has his own laptop, and it’s saved the district from having to buy textbooks. In fact, the district paid for the program through the savings from not having to buy textbooks. They also save on paper costs because the homework is done on the computers using free online cloud-based services,” he says.

Online and Distance Learning
In late March FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski met with technology executives and education groups and said other nations such as South Korea and Turkey are already racing to seize the opportunities of digital textbooks. He said the United States needs to step up its efforts in order to realize the promise presented by new technologies.

Replacing expensive textbooks with expensive tablet computers or laptops may sound to some like the tonic for what ails our failing public school system, but many public policy experts warn that we need to study the problem before jumping down a very expensive high-tech rabbit hole.

Goldwater Institute Education Director Jonathan Butcher says more significant research needs to be conducted on the effectiveness of digital textbooks. He says the United States nonetheless is moving very rapidly to a point where so much content is online that schools may have to give students the tools to access it.

“Over the next decade, something like half of all public school content is going to be online,” Butcher said. “This seems to be where it’s all headed, or maybe a blended-learning situation, where half the instruction is inside a classroom while the rest is through online instruction or distance learning,” he says.

‘Context and Location’
The move to replace textbooks with e-book devices is probably inevitable, says Maureen Martin, general counsel and senior fellow for legal affairs for The Heartland Institute, which publishes InfoTech & Telecom News. But she notes the move has both advantages and disadvantages.

“When close, intense reading is required, books have the advantage. It’s easier to concentrate,” said Martin. “Most people are used to skimming the content on a computer screen, but not the content in a book. And it’s easier to flip back to something read previously or move ahead to skim upcoming content. It’s also easier to absorb what researchers call ‘navigational cues,’ which is what researchers call context and location within a book, which aids retention,” says Martin.

“There are many advantages to e-books,” Martin added. “Primarily, they can be updated continuously, which does away with the problems of outdated textbooks and the costs of replacing them. Despite the upfront cost of purchasing e-book readers or tablet computers, over time the cost savings are expected to be substantial. For that reason alone, e-books are likely to prevail in schools,” she says.

Adaptation Required
Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute says tablets and laptops are certainly worth considering.

“Too often decisions like whether or not to go to a new technology are looked at in a superficial manner,” Trabert said. “I’m not aware of any studies on the effectiveness of tablets on learning once they’re introduced into the classroom. When a district decides to take this step, it had better be prepared for all the consequences,” he said.

Trabert explained, “Digital learning is great for some kids and they really like it, but it may not be effective for all kids. Likewise, I’d like to see some research done on teachers to see how well they adapt to blended learning. You can’t take a traditional teacher and say, ‘Shazam! You are now an online teacher.'”

‘Textbooks Are Extremely Expensive’
Online instruction or distance learning would probably work better in larger urban districts where you already have a good deal of digital infrastructure, says Butcher.

“Places like Miami, Charlotte, and Chicago are better suited for online learning than a rural area,” Butcher said. In fact, there is already some pushback in Arizona—most noticeably from the Native American community, as some reservations are isolated and don’t have electricity, let alone cable, Butcher noted.

“Textbooks are extremely expensive, plus, there is no market for them beyond the schools,” he concluded. “Their high prices reflect the fact that publishers cram everything they can into them for the teachers in case they want to teach something in their lesson plan. With online instruction, it’s much easier and cheaper for teachers to craft their own lessons.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.