Digital textbooks challenge from US government

The Huffington Post reports that US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski have challenged schools and publishers to make the conversion to digital textbooks within five years. Now, on one level, this is straightforward enough - most educational publishers can do this now and already are, to some extent. But the elephant in the room is what they mean by 'digital textbook'.

The problem is that they clearly don't mean a flat PDF or EPUB: "We're not talking about the print-based textbook now being digital. We're talking about a much more robust and interactive and engaging environment to support learning," says Karen Cator, director of the Education Department's office of education technology. No, they want the whole interactive thing, too. "When a student reads a textbook and gets to something they don't know, they are stuck," Genachowski said. "Working with the same material on a digital textbook, when they get to something they don't know, the device can let them explore: it can show them what a word means, how to solve a math problem that they couldn't figure out how to solve." Cator says that students should expect video explanations to help with homework, to be able to rotate and move 3D molecules, or use a globe to explore the news.

And this is still all fine and can be delivered through many platforms (including platform du jour iBooks2).

The problem is that they've got another requirement, too. They want to save money at the same time. So, again, we have people pursuing two mutually exclusive goals at the same time. They want learning materials with hugely expanded capabilities for interaction, exploration and personalisation. And they want to spend less money acquiring those resources.

And that isn't likely to be possible, or at least not any time soon. Creating extra resources (and especially interactive and adaptable ones) is very labour-intensive and hence expensive. This is the reason that these types of resource are scarce now - schools don't have the money to pay for them. (Nor, it must be said, often the interest.) The only thing that will change this is increasing budgets somehow so that this material can be acquired.

Is there some way that educational publishers can engage with the politicians so that they can understand the realities of doing business? Or is the message that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch" clear enough already?

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