Research & Commentary: Digital Textbooks

Published February 13, 2012

The Obama administration has announced it wants every child in the nation to have an e-textbook by 2017. Several states, including California and Utah, already have made their way towards that goal. The administration has proposed and increased federal subsidies for broadband access to encourage the spread of learning technology and Internet access.

The administration and some education technology enthusiasts tout digital textbooks for their ability to integrate media such as videos, audio, slideshows, and quizzes, their light weight compared to stacks of textbooks, and the ability to update them quickly and easily. Digital textbooks can save money in the long run, as Utah’s project demonstrated in reducing average core class textbook prices from $80 to $4 after the initial investment in creating the books.

Not all digital textbooks save money, however, despite usually lower sticker prices, because schools and families must buy computers or tablets for students to view the textbook, pay for technical support and insurance for these tools, and pay to renew one-year licenses on some digital textbooks. These materials may benefit the big businesses that supply them while not improving education. Legislators and schools should price and compare their options thoroughly, and the materials should be judged objectively for quality and vetted for their contribution to the overall curriculum.

Advocates of market-based reform note reducing federal and state subsidies and mandates for textbooks can break textbook company monopolies and facilitate better-quality, lower-cost materials through competition. They note states and schools are adopting new technology without the need for federal interference and much faster than mandates would allow.

The biggest obstacles to the savings and innovation that education technology offers are public subsidies and their attendant control over education, which have retarded technological development, expansion, and access. Content is much more important than the method of delivery, reformers note, so surging interest in education technology must not take priority over the pursuit of actual student learning.

The following documents offer more information about digital textbooks.


Digital Textbooks to Arrive in Utah Schools This Fall
Utah’s Office of Education will roll out open-source math, science, and language arts textbooks this fall that meet their state education standards in an effort to reduce textbook costs from an average of $80 to $4, reports School Reform News. Digital textbooks offer significant cost savings and the possibility of disrupting a subsidized education cartel, but they raise questions about who monitors their material and may mislead students and educators about the hard work required to learn.

The Truth About Tablets: Educators Are Getting iPads and Ereaders into Students’ Hands—But It’s Not Easy
Writing for Library Journal, Audrey Watters provides an overview of the technical and instructional hurdles of incorporating tablets and e-readers into classrooms. The main difficulties are in getting these technologies into the classroom en masse, as manufacturers and publishers have poor group discounts and user licenses. Another problem is getting the different devices and systems to work together, and in the initial costs associated with adopting the new technologies.

When Will Curriculum Supplant Textbooks?
Specific textbooks are much less important than the entire curriculum: the quality of teachers and their lesson plans, specific content and ideas, and the activities and arrangement of a school, explains A. Graham Down in Education Next. In debates about myriad other school issues, often the importance of what is being taught, as well as how it gets taught, is lost.

What’s Wrong with the Dept of Ed and FCC’s Digital Textbook Push
Digital content cannot and should never substitute for textbooks because its interactive ability makes it fundamentally different, writes Audrey Watters for Hack Education. Textbooks are one-size-fits-all approaches, whereas technology allows for much more personalization to individual students, she says. E-textbooks that merely put a printed page online are no improvement and not worth thousands of taxpayer dollars.

Evaluating the Cost-Effectiveness of RUS Broadband Subsidies: Three Case Studies
FCC subsidies to increase broadband Internet access for “underserved” people are absurdly expensive and ineffective, conclude Jeffrey A. Eisenach and Kevin W. Caves in a 2011 study for Navigant Economics. The FCC’s programs often funded duplicative coverage in areas already served by existing providers. The current program is not a cost-effective means of achieving universal broadband availability, they write.

Who Really Benefits from Putting High-tech Gadgets in Classrooms?
The FCC and U.S. Education Department’s education technology initiatives promote “mindless servility to technology for its own sake” on behalf of well-connected companies such as Apple and Comcast, writes Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times. Education technology can serve as an excuse for companies to profit at taxpayer expense while providing no academic benefit in return.

View: iPads Won’t Make Textbooks More Affordable
If the federal government really wanted to help lower textbook prices, it would stop inflating them through subsidies to students and schools, write the editors of Bloomberg Businessweek. The textbook industry currently amounts to a cartel, it notes, with a few companies owning the $10 billion market and those who use the books largely not paying for them out of their own pockets. They recommend the Federal Trade Commission investigate blocks on shipping overseas textbooks to the United States, and that states consider vetted open-source content.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].