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Is Your District Missing the Digital Literacy Boat?

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In many ways, today represents an unprecedented opportunity to advance student literacy. With tablets, e-readers, and mobile phones, you can literally carry endless shelves of excellent books in your pocket. In addition, education technology offers breakthrough tools to help teachers raise the literacy bar. Yet numerous factors hamper schools' abilities to bring these benefits into our classrooms.

When it comes to purchasing and utilizing digital books, confusion reigns among educators. Lacking a good understanding of this fast-changing space, I see educators making short-term decisions about the transition to digital books and building ebook libraries without plans for instructional use. Perhaps worst of all, I see districts staying on the sidelines, delaying purchases of e-books because the options seem too murky to fully understand.   

I believe we need to amplify the national conversation about this critical subject. As a district administrator, I want to highlight three under-recognized points: (1) the emergence of educational technology that can dramatically improve literacy outcomes in schools; (2) the cost-effective options for bringing digital books into schools; and (3) the funding challenges involved in making these new tools available to all students. Let's address e-book purchasing first.

Best Bang for the District Buck

Some digital book options are simply better for schools than others. Unfortunately, the landscape is not well-understood among school and district leaders. Here is what an informed purchaser should know:

E-books for schools are often available from publishers in an "in-perpetuity" purchase model. This means that a school or district purchases the book once and owns it forever. The book will never wear out, be written in, or lost, which saves money in the long term. Such e-books typically cost more than paperback books, and can sometimes cost more than hardback or library-bound books. For example, when purchased from Follett, Lois Lowry's The Giver costs $7.69 in paperback, $15.34 in hardback, and $8.99 for an in-perpetuity e-book. Seymour Simon's Extreme Earth Records costs $6.84 in paperback, $15.34 in hardback, and $16.89 digitally—also in perpetuity. Especially for school libraries, the indestructible, impossible-to-lose digital book is clearly the best long-term value.

Some schools purchase e-books from providers like Amazon or iBooks because the price tag sounds attractive: The Giver costs $2.99 on Amazon and iBooks, and Extreme Earth Records costs $9.99. Yet those e-book licenses are intended for consumers—and thus are limited to one user account—so these e-books can't be shared across a school or classroom with any ease. Only two students need to read Extreme Earth Records for the $16.89 Follett e-book to be a better value than the $9.99 Amazon or iBooks purchase. Similarly, after the third read of The Giver, the school saves by purchasing the e-book. Why, then, do schools still buy from Amazon and iBooks? Usually, I find it boils down to misunderstanding the options.

Some e-book licenses allow multiple students to access an e-book simultaneously, making those texts very cost-effective for whole class work. Cheetahs by Tammy Gagne, which is $20.54 in hardcover, costs $20.49 for an in-perpetuity e-book which can be read one student at a time, and $30.74 for an "unlimited access" license, which could be used by an entire school simultaneously (and again, in perpetuity). At this price, the unlimited-use e-book is more affordable than a class set of any text!

As these examples illustrate, in-perpetuity e-book licenses, which are available to schools through suppliers like Follett or Baker & Taylor, represent the best long-term value for digital books. In many cases, they may even represent a better value than physical texts, especially for classroom-wide use. Yet evidence suggests that educators are still learning these options: in a recent survey featured in the School Library Journal, 40 percent of school and district leaders said they are still unsure which e-book purchase model makes the most sense for their district.

The Challenge of Funding the Digital Transition

If the long-term value of most e-books is good news, the bad news revolves around the disconnect between classroom needs and district budgeting:

  • Instructional realities: To take advantage of e-books in the classrooms, teachers need quality classroom libraries and class sets of texts. Teachers can't leverage new technologies with a few students reading digitally and the rest in a paperback, so a piecemeal approach won't work—schools need funds to replace book closets with e-book libraries. Yet schools budget to replace a portion of their books each year, not to build new libraries from scratch. A swift digital transition is challenging for schools, whose budgets aren't designed to absorb one-time costs.
  • Tapped budgets: Districts, pushed to increase their capabilities to handle computer-based testing, have invested heavily in digital devices, costly peripherals such as keyboards, and wireless infrastructure, leaving limited funds for the content and software needed to support digital reading initiatives.

These factors must be brought to the attention of school communities, parents, and philanthropists. Fortunately, efforts to increase students' access to digital books have gained attention through President Obama's ConnectED initiative and articles such as Jim Duncan and David Rothman's recent Education Week commentary calling for a national digital-library endowment. I would add to the calls for philanthropic support, which will be necessary for schools to tap the promise of digital books.  

Unprecedented Instructional Opportunities Using Ebooks

While these challenges delay the transition to digital, our schools are missing out on significant instructional opportunities. The education technology market is currently producing tools that can dramatically alter literacy instruction through the use of e-books in the classroom. Tools like LightSail, myOn, and Actively Learn are engaging readers in ways that are impossible with physical books while also providing realtime feedback to educators and students.

In my district, we use LightSail, a literacy platform that assesses students while they read digital books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Book Thief. Based on the assessments, teachers see student progress across a number of metrics, including a daily update of students' Lexile measures. The software calculates actual reading time, so we accurately know the volume of reading done by each student, and we can correlate reading time with reading performance. Teachers also see student annotations—the kind formerly recorded in reading journals—in real time. By using this tool, our teachers are personalizing and fine-tuning instruction in ways that cannot be replicated with a physical book.

Such classroom tools are true "game changers" for literacy instruction, supporting literacy outcomes in our schools that were previously unimaginable—and the technology keeps improving. But to capitalize on these opportunities, we need to determine how we will ensure the necessary funding to provide all students with access to these tools.

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