The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 9, 2012

Our View: Future is now with digital textbooks


The Free Press

— In the history of American education, success has risen along with innovation. Ruled paper was perfect for teaching penmanship. Chalk allowed the teacher to outline lessons for all students to see. In more modern times, the computer inspired another leap forward.

Potential leaps keep coming. Digital textbooks could be the next big innovation.

It's difficult for many of us, who grew up with chalk boards and pocket calculators, to embrace a future where the traditional hand-held book is pushed aside in favor of words and images on a computer screen. But that day will be coming soon if Education Secretary Arne Duncan gets his way.

"Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete," Duncan said last week in declaring the U.S. should quickly embrace digital textbooks.

There are many reasons digital textbooks, as opposed to the printed kind, make sense. For one, young people who make up the majority of students have welcomed the digital age and many of them would rather read something online than from the printed page.

 There's also the financial issue. College students routinely complain about expensive textbooks required by professors, about the cost associated with having to constantly replace them with updated versions -- updated, critics say, only to gouge more students.

There's no doubt new textbooks can be expensive on a college student budget. Meanwhile, digital textbooks are cheaper in the long run. They can be updated quickly, and they can be enhanced with videos and interactive experiences that are not impossible with traditional books.

Educational institutions, from grade schools to universities, can decide which materials to use, like picking from a buffet, then adjust those decisions seamlessly when new offerings become available. It's a digital smorgasbord out there, as close to instructors as a mouse click.

States might want to look closely at California, where bills were introduced last month to allow college students to choose free online textbooks for most undergraduate courses instead of printed books. The bills would lead to the creation of an online library for some of the most popular courses taken.

Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, says at least 22 states have made significant efforts toward digital textbooks. With the recent adoption of Common Core standards (uniform standards for math and reading embraced by 48 states), it is now easier for collaborative efforts to be successful.

Duncan is clearly determined to move quickly toward digital. We don't necessarily agree that old-style textbooks should soon become obsolete, because it's not going to set the nation back to have traditional libraries in schools. Even so, Duncan is right in suggesting that, for the benefit of money-strapped students and for the fact that technology moves ever forward, better to go full speed ahead with the future.