Digital Textbook Run Down

A comprehensive look at e-books and e-content in the United States.

by Lai Saetern / March 30, 2009 0

Students across the country have said farewell to the traditional print textbooks, pencils, notepads and hefty backpacks; they've gone completely digital, using laptops or e-books as learning companions.

Electronic learning is not new; in fact, many schools have implemented technologies that allow books and curriculum to be viewed digitally.

Decades from now, there's no telling how schools will function or if textbooks will be a thing of the past. But looking at today's classrooms gives us an idea: Students in some states can choose the textbook-free option, where all the material they need is either on their computers or readily downloadable online. And reading digitally is quickly becoming cheaper than buying textbooks.

Economic report: states of spending

California, Texas and Florida represent about 30 percent of the total national book publishing market, according to the Center for Education Reform. These states are the largest source of profits for publishers.

California spends approximately $400 million per year on textbooks, according to the California Open Source Textbook Project, while Texas spends approximately $500 million per year, according to the Texas Education Agency. Florida's spending is closer to $260 million per year, according to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

And while state budgets are becoming tighter, the price of textbooks increases annually. According to the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the K-12 textbook market reached $6.4 billion in 2007, and the average spending per pupil for books in U.S. public schools amounted to $64.51 annually or 36 cents per instructional day.

A reading device -- one students can use to read books for all four years of high school -- costs $299 to $999. The content downloaded to these devices is free or costs approximately $25 per license.

Because the average lifespan of a K-12 textbook is two to three years (though some states use books much longer), new ones must be purchased frequently. And, if as much as one paragraph in the text is wrong, a new edition could be required, according to the AAP. With digital books, however, there's no cost to update incorrect text.

Schools in action

Every morning, Albert Castella takes his laptop to school, operates it in class, surfs the Web, checks his e-mail in his spare time and brings it home to complete his homework.

He attends Empire High School in Tucson, Ariz., one of the first public high schools to entirely adopt digital textbooks.

"My entire school life is based on computers outside of social activity," Castella said. "All of my homework is on there, my music, videos if I have them."

From 2007 to 2008, e-books saw a 23.6 percent increase with $67 million in sales, and a compound growth rate of 55.7 percent since 2002, according to the AAP.

When Batavia High School in Batavia, Ill., implemented e-books in 2000, it was breaking new ground.

Batavia High purchased seven Rocket eBooks, which students could check out during school hours. When the Rocket eBooks arrived, students were initially intrigued, but lost interest after using them, said Daniel Russo, the director of Batavia High's Learning Resource Center.

Now that e-books are more readily available, lighter and speedier, Russo applied for a grant to purchase a newer model: The Kindle will launch at Batavia High in March 2009. Russo said he's expecting a better outcome.

Higher learning, higher expense

College students are, by far, the most significant group of consumers in the publishing industry, delving deep into their pockets to acquire books for classes.

Since new editions are produced about every three years, students are required to purchase new versions for classes. To make textbooks more affordable, legislative steps have been taken: In September 2008, Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which requires publishers to release more information about their prices and to sell textbooks separately, instead of bundling them with CDs, DVDs or workbooks.

If, however, books were published digitally, production expenses could be reduced by approximately 55.6 percent, according to the National Association of College Stores, and 100 percent of the physical resources would be spared.

Digital learning forecast

With evolving technology and the expediency of electronic devices, the adoption of digital content in schools is predicted to grow drastically in the next decade: The usage of laptop PCs and Macs will see an annual increase of 27 percent and 25 percent, respectively, over the next five years, according to the 2006 America's Digital Schools Survey.

Other predictions and key findings at the time of the survey include:

  • Approximately 19 percent of all student devices were mobile in 2006. In 2011, this number should jump to 50 percent -- this includes laptops, tablets and other student applications, with the exception of mobile phones.
  • In 2006, Internet bandwidth was 2.9 kilobits per second (Kbps) per student. The survey predicts that schools will need 40 Kbps per student by 2011 -- a 14-fold increase. Online courses were only used by 3.8 percent of students. By 2011, that number is expected to reach 15.6 percent -- a 32.6 percent compound annual growth rate.

Educators must prepare for the tech-savvy generation of students who will likely favor a digital-based education. But converting from a textbook, pencil and paper classroom to a digital one may pose a challenge.

"Schools that were built in previous decades would need to do major upgrades and modifications to their infrastructure to handle that kind of thing," said Empire High's Assistant Principal Darcy Mentone. "Unless states start funding schools at a much higher rate than they're doing now, I don't see that as something that most schools will be able to pull off."

Even with these doubts, at the rate technology is progressing, it is inevitable that digital content will prevail in classrooms.

*This story is from Converge magazine's Winter 2009 issue.

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