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The Evolution of Digital Textbooks

In a panel discussion at ISTE 2012 yesterday, titled "Textbook Deathwatch: The Evolution of Digital Resources," representatives from both proprietary and open textbook camps debated the future of print and digital textbooks.

The conversation was lead by Brian Bridges, the director of the California Learning Resource Network, who compared the evolution of the textbook industry to the music industry. "It wasn't the music business that was dying," he said. "It was the CD business." Similarly, the textbook isn't necessarily going away, said Bridges, but the form is definitely changing.

Neeru Khosla, the co-founder of CK-12 talked about using digital versions of textbooks in order to shift from a fixed-time/variable-learning model to a variable-time/fixed-learning model. The CK-12 flexbooks, which are open-source materials, were created by mapping out over 5,000 concepts that students need to know and then weaving them together in knowledge paths, said Khosla. The flexbooks also include interactive quizzes that gather information about student learning and uses that data to predict where the student should go next.

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"All of a sudden, a textbook becomes not a digital object, but it becomes what a digital object can do so students can learn in a different way," she said.

Next, Paul McFall, the senior vice president of the Pearson Curriculum Group, talked about the company's shift toward digital resources. "We have simply got to move in this direction in order to remain viable," he said. But while many schools are exploring digital resources, most also request a physical copy as well, he mentioned.

"We are already producing online materials that school districts can't even use fully because of the challenges they have [with professional development and infrastructure,]" said McFall. But while schools may not quite be ready to make the transition to fully digital content, the revenue from digital resources grows each year, and currently makes up more than a third of Pearson's sales, said McFall.

Kelly Schwirzke, the coordinator of online learning for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, pointed to numerous states (Utah, California, Texas, Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, and Georgia) that have changed the definition of textbooks in order to include digital versions. Several other states—Virginia, Maryland, Florida, Texas, and Maine, to name a few&mash;have adopted digital textbook initiatives.

In the Q&A portion of the session, the panelists agreed across the board that digital textbooks will never fully "kill" print, and that paper textbooks will continue to exist in some form. They also agreed that digital textbooks are appropriate for all students in all grade levels. And while no one quite knows what form digital textbooks will take, it's clear that content is increasingly being delivered digitally in order to meet the needs and wants of students, the panelists agreed.

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