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US government wants schools to embrace digital textbooks

Although they haven't exactly explained how school systems or parents are going to pay for iPads or other tablets for every student, the US government is pushing a new initiative to move from standard printed textbooks to digital textbooks within the next five years. While it's good to see that a focus on digital textbooks is finally at hand, it's going to take more than a press release, five years and a "playbook" to make the transition happen.

According to an AP news release, "Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski on Wednesday challenged schools and companies to get digital textbooks in students' hands within five years."

In an interview, Duncan asked, "Do we want kids walking around with 50-pound backpacks and every book in those backpacks costing 50, 60, 70 dollars and many of them being out of date? Or, do we want students walking around with a mobile device that has much more content than was even imaginable a couple years ago and can be constantly updated? I think it's a very simple choice."

To school systems that are battling drastically decreased budgets and trying to replace or repair crumbling infrastructure, it might not be such a "simple choice." Likewise, there doesn't appear to have been much (if any) thought on how parents or schools systems are going to replace equipment that is broken or lost by students, or how to pay for digital devices to be refreshed every three to five years.

Wednesday's announcement comes just two weeks after Apple's education event and the launch of iBooks textbooks. The company is perfectly placed, both in terms of the iPad hardware platform and iBooks Author creation tool, to benefit from a move to interactive and easily updated electronic textbooks.

The government released a 67-page "playbook" promoting the use of digital textbooks and offering guidance to school systems who want to make the move. At the current time, about US$8 billion is spent each year on traditional textbooks for K-12 school kids. With an Apple educational discount, that could pay for more than 17 million iPads each year. If Apple, as rumored, brings down the price of entry into the iPad market by selling the iPad 2 alongside a future model, more devices could make it into the hands of students across the nation.

On the other hand, switching to digital textbooks means more than just acquiring hardware and buying textbook apps. In many cases, the curriculum provided by a school district and even the methods used by instructors to teach students must change as well. The educational five-year plan is a noble goal; it's just not very realistic.

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