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An Implementation Road Map for Digital Textbooks

  • July 18, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solutions Architect

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated openly that he hopes paper textbooks will become extinct sooner rather than later. As the industry continues to evolve, it may finally be time for digital textbooks to realize their long-touted potential.

Building For The Future

In order to realize digital textbooks’ full potential, local infrastructure, access and IT planning must be robust. For example, local district servers and bandwidth must be designed to handle the increased demand loads.

Students will need access to devices to use at school and at home, and these devices will require available tech support. The “bring your own device” (BYOD) model, complemented by programs allowing students to check out devices and small routers or Wi-Fi cards, are seen as one model to accommodate all students’ needs.

Cross-platform reliability will also be key. Some schools require compliance with the interoperability standards of the IMS Global Learning Consortium. Additionally, strong security and privacy must be built into the planning process, such as procedures for deleting personal data at the end of use.

The Cost of Convenience

A two-year university study in Florida found lower cost and convenience were the main drivers for exploring digital textbooks, not the features or enhanced learning. As such it is critical for districts to evaluate true costs of ownership for digital content and to budget for future costs as the subscription funding models impact financial planning over a period of time versus traditional capital expenses of paper textbooks.

Teacher Training

Teachers must be comprehensively trained to use and teach with digital textbooks. This presents an important professional development opportunity, because digital textbooks offer new opportunities to support teaching and learning. Studies have found that students use digital textbooks more arduously when instructors actively use them in class and annotate or customize them for coursework.

Librarians are also being redefined, retrained, and redeployed to be media experts. One Pennsylvania district has created what it calls TLC teams, meaning technicians, librarians and coaches, to handle the integration of digital textbooks.

Success Stories

Digital content success stories are beginning to add up. When combined with broader blended learning strategies and access to devices, digital textbooks can play an important role in improved outcomes.

In AP courses at Islip High School in New York, science teacher Wayne Mennecke has leveraged apps that interactively explain concepts such as mitosis and cell division. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, schools have piloted science and math digital textbooks on tablets. Initially, they found that audio blended well with the text-enhanced learning. A follow-up study found fourth-grade science scores improved among those who used digital textbooks.

Superintendent Mark Roth of the Salisbury Township School District in Pennsylvania integrated digital textbooks to create a blended environment. Students test their own reading levels, design video presentations, and create mini TED events.

In Meriden, Connecticut, Superintendent Mark Benigni created a BYOD initiative plus a targeted program delivering the tech to autistic students. “Our students were ready, and they were asking for it,” says Benigni. Students in grades 3-12 use digital textbooks for geometry, algebra, chemistry, anatomy and more.

The Pressure Is On

The potential of digital textbooks will likely only be fully realized if schools continue to press the broader service provider ecosystem to move the needle. The Houston school district’s “Power Up” initiative, for example, includes a new digital content and teaching platform called the “Hub.” District leaders also formalized rules requiring all vendors to work in compliance with IMS Global standards.

Moving forward, key features like interoperability, digital note taking, augmented content, and adaptive and personalized learning need to be developed and deployed uniformly across products. The “voice of the customer”—in this case, students, teachers and administrators—needs to be raised and heard.

Takeaway: Digital textbook success stories are starting to accumulate in pockets. Best practices like those above, and insistence on their use by school districts, can speed adoption and deliver ROI while simultaneously chipping away at persistent barriers to wider acceptance, finally delivering on their promise to replace paper textbooks.


1. “106K Free Teacher-Created Digital Textbooks Hit the Web” eSchool News. February 18, 2015.
2. “Four Keys to Success with Digital Textbooks” eSchool News. March 7, 2013.
3. “Alabama District Eyes Digital Conversation by Eliminating Textbooks” eSchool News. December 1, 2015.
4. “Realizing the Promise of Digital Textbooks” eSchool News. April 14, 2014.
5. “Are Digital Textbooks Worth It?” eSchool News. January 28, 2015.
6. “Realizing the Promise of Digital Textbooks” eSchool News. February 25, 2014.
7. “In Students’ Minds, Textbooks Are Increasingly Optional Purchases” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 9, 2015.
8. “Exploring Students’ E-Textbook Practices in Higher Education” EDUCAUSE Review. July 6, 2015.
9. “Putting a Dent in College Costs With Open-Source Textbooks” The New York Times. February 25, 2015.
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