Secretary Duncan Calls for Digital Textbooks In Two Years – Four Essential Questions

Last Tuesday the Secretary of Education said

“I think we should be moving from print to digital absolutely as fast as we can over the next couple of years. Textbooks should be obsolete.”

He was clear that he sees the digital transformation in schools as a “critical game changer” for the American education system.

He gave three reasons for the advocating a rapid shift:

  • Providing 24/7 access to learning resources, expanding learning time
  • Improving equity of access to high quality resources for all students
  • Bolstering international competitiveness

The question and answer are at 34:05 into the video below:

In the context of the event this appeared to be a passing comment. But last February the DOE and the FCC announced an initiative to put digital textbooks in all schools within five years.

The initiative is based on the work of Project RED, sponsored by Intel, HP, SMART, Pearson, and Apple with most of the major education associations offering support.

With this kind of momentum behind it the outlines of a serious policy shift are emerging. Pay attention.

Four Questions for the DOE

As someone who has spent the better part of the last 25 years working on technology in education, the CEO of a company that provides a blend of software and print materials, the Board President of the Association of Education Publishers, and a parent who observed my son’s school adopting iPads last year I appreciate the Secretary’s focus on this issue.

Based on my experience and perspective I have four questions intended to get at the devil in the details.

They touch on:

  1. Funding
  2. Evidence
  3. Market Behavior
  4. Quality

1. Funding. Where is the legislation that will provide a minimum of $65 billion over the next 10 years to launch and sustain this effort? This is just at the High School level.

I did an analysis last spring that showed that iPad based textbooks cost at least five times what traditional materials cost. Without rehashing the full post the nub is that the devices and the network infrastructure investments are massive. To do this (at just the High School level) it would require a sustained investment of at least $6.5 billion incrementally per year for the foreseeable future. For all grade levels it would approach $15 billion in incremental spending per year. And yes – I factored in significant discounts for the volume involved.

Project RED came to similar conclusions about the near term incremental costs. Their estimate was $16.2 billion per year (p 91). They added long term benefits to society like dropout prevention to come up with a net savings. While useful from a macro standpoint of understanding the policy implications this larger view doesn’t solve the school budget problem. The benefits accrue to society in general in the future but leave schools holding the bag for funding it today.

Don’t be distracted by arguments that OER will solve this problem since the actual materials are not where the real differences lie. Just think about how adding 800 devices to a High School’s network explodes bandwidth requirements to get a sense of some of the other investments required to support this move.

We also start in a hole. The instructional materials market has been hit hard by the post-stimulus funding environment. Schools are spending roughly 40% less this year on materials than they did last year. This is currently projected to only improve marginally over the next 2 years, the Secretary’s timeframe for driving this transition.

The reality is that you need to add a couple billion more per year just to close that gap at the state and local level, so in the near term the number may be closer to $8-$9 billion per year. To put that in context, Title 1 is roughly $14.5 billion (before sequestration).

Given the funding crisis at the state and local level this initiative would need to be a major new Federal program in the same league as Title 1 and IDEA ($12-$15 billion annually) to cover all grades. It would be a major stimulus for local government and would provide a healthy shot in the arm to computer, networking, and content companies.

As stimulus it is close to perfect from both economic and political perspectives. It makes a long-term investment in American competitiveness while providing a meaningful jobs boost in the near-term. If anyone wants help crafting that proposal I’m standing by to help.

2. Evidence. Given the costs, where is the evidence that this investment will be worth it?

We are still on the near side of the technology chasm – with some essential basic questions about how to effectively deploy these kinds of devices at scale in schools. We also face a pretty massive training effort.

In Higher Education the students are resisting this transition. In some cases students are reverting to print after experiencing digital texts.

This reflects are larger truth that I see at play. Books actually do a few things better than technology. The trick is figuring out what the technology does particularly well, and then redesigning print and tech as an integrated system that uses the best of both worlds. Rich simulations, database driven content, and peer to peer coaching are all uniquely strong on technology. Random access, note taking, and battery life (infinite!) are better with print.

Would it be more prudent to move in a more organic way as we do the research to uncover best practices, or are we going to effectively throw the whole education system into the deep end and hope it can swim?

Project RED made a great start on this and did find improvements in outcomes (notably dropout prevention and engagement). But it is one study and their findings are colored by the appearance of self-interest (all the sponsors stand to benefit and the authors are long-time advocates of 1:1 initiatives).

I applaud them for making a serious effort to answer the questions swirling around this issue and know and respect the work of the team. The report is required reading for anyone who cares about this issue. But before we start dropping billions a year on this it would be reassuring to have independent third parties replicate the findings. The DOE is uniquely equipped to fund a crash research project on this.

My fear is that without a clear body of evidence we will face an inevitable backlash in the middle of the process that will derail it. As the saying goes “the middle of anything looks like failure.” We need strong research to power past that point in this transition and it would be best to take the time to do that research at scale. Again, the Department of Education is best equipped to muster the evidence needed.

3. Market behavior. Current purchasing patterns show that educators believe a blend of digital and print is best – will this be valued or dismissed?

It isn’t just Higher Ed students shying away from a full transition. Buying decisions being made today in K12 indicate that educators want a blend of print and digital, not a pure digital world. The tech partisans will tell you teachers are just dragging their feet, but I don’t think so. Teachers recognize that most students learn better with technology some of the time. It isn’t a cure all. They need a rich blend of resources to address the learning needs of all students all the time.

For example, the PCI Reading Program is a world class reading program for students with intellectual disabilities (Autism, Down’s Syndrome, etc). The vast majority of our customers purchase the print and the technology versions of the program together, even though each can stand on its own. General education publishers I’ve spoken with have seen the same thing, and in many cases have seen customers who went pure digital coming back after the fact and adding the print to the mix.

This should give pause to calls to completely abandon print materials. The real trick, as I noted above, is to figure out how both print and digital should be designed as a system to optimize learning outcomes.

4. Quality. Transitioning 54 million students to digital textbooks in two years is a moon shot – how do we maintain the quality of learning resources in the mad dash to get it done in that timeframe?

Everyone wants quality materials – teachers, parents, policy makers, the students themselves. That isn’t the issue. But the market left to its own will take several years to sort out what that means. Is the DOE going to be an active participant in accelerating this sorting out, or will they let it happen organically?

Standards will emerge, best practices will be refined, business models will evolve, licensing issues will be sorted out, etc etc etc. But if we don’t place a a very high priority on the quality of resources in the rush to just get it done we’ll end up with a crap-ton of junk content on really cool digital devices.

We have two very concrete examples to demonstrate this point.

First, digital whiteboards are now in roughly 50% of classrooms but the bulk of resources available are still at what I call the “Hypercard” stage – simple static animations. Schools have put hundreds of millions into deploying the technology and are now focusing on what to do with it. They will figure it out – I don’t doubt that for a second – but we are in the “middle” right now and quality is a real mixed bag.

Second, a short troll through the back alleys of the iTunes education store will make clear how real this danger is. Alongside some truly high quality stuff there are thousands of poorly executed “classroom” aps (e.g. no method to give teachers feedback on student progress, crash prone, bad UI, etc.).

Another angle on quality is the maturity of the tools to produce content. The fastest way to get quality content would be rapid conversion of good stuff that is in print today. It isn’t the end – because really the materials need to be re-imagined for a digital world. But it would be a fast start. Unfortunately the tools to do that are immature.

Take Apple’s iBooks Author program which is used to create digital textbooks. It doesn’t read InDesign files – the format for most existing content. Doing a conversion is a massive pain in the neck because you have to extract all the separate content (text, images, etc.) and then completely reformat it. You can’t just move your files over and tweak them. This is an eminently solvable problem – but publishers are currently balking because it isn’t ready for prime time yet.

If the funding issue was seriously addressed the investment decision would be clear and, good tools or no, you would see publishers moving ahead aggressively. The economic downturn has hit publishers hard and making massive new investments in the current climate is possible but difficult.


I applaud the Secretary for putting a bold stake in the ground – it is only with this kind of leadership that we will see a sustained effort at redefining what a world class education means in the era of 24/7/365 access to learning. All of us who have been chipping away at this problem, many since the late ’70s, are excited to have an advocate at the top calling for this transition.

But we have also learned a few things along the way. Heeding those lessons will lead to a better outcome. We could start by getting some clear answers to the questions outlined above.