In conjunction with the first annual Digital Learning Day on February 1st, Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Digital Textbook Playbook (DTP). The DTP is an innovative and comprehensive plan to transition all public schools to digital material usage within five years. The plan is bold, socially conscious, and could help push education firmly into the 21st century. But while it is impressive in its scope and reach, the plan does not address the impact that such a transition will have on higher education. Fortunately, that impact will largely be a positive one. Moving all American students to digital texts and resources will affect their expectations upon entering college. A closer look at the plan demonstrates some of the ways in which the DTP will affect education at all levels.
The Game Plan
The overall purpose of the DTP is to guide educators in making the transition from strictly print to digital resources. It was created by the Digital Textbook Collaborative, which includes educational technology and textbook industry leaders, education leadership, and representatives from the FCC and the Department of Education (DOE). It is part of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan and the DOE’s National Education Technology Plan.
The reasons given for implementing this ambitious plan for digital textbooks are many. Among them are that digital learning is more effective than traditional methods, and it is also more engaging, more personal, more equitable, more cost-effective, and richer in terms of content (P.9-11). According to the group, digital textbooks provide a better overall experience for all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status, and provide a vehicle for bridging the Digital Divide.
The primary and most difficult challenge for this process will be to make sure that all students have access to digital educational resources within five years. This is one crucial aspect of the plan that cannot be overlooked. If it actually happens and all students do end up with access to those digital resources, this will be the first government effort which equalizes the educational playing field for every student in a significant way since Brown v Board of Education (1954). In fact, if the FCC, DOE, and industry stakeholders accomplish all of the goals set forth in the DTP, it will represent one of the most sweeping social changes in the history of the country. They are scheduled to meet in March to hammer out the details of the plan, which is divided into four sections:
- Making the Transition to Digital Learning – This phase of the DTP calls for careful planning on the part of schools to determine what digital learning means for them and how to best implement it in their systems. This means that schools need to figure out how they can craft educational experiences that are individualized, well thought-out, engaging, creative, flexible; and that boast a strong commitment to follow through and completely supplant traditional texts with digital media (P. 12-14).
- Connectivity at School – According to the Playbook, schools need to become completely and seamlessly connected for this plan to work. This means planning for sufficient bandwidth for all school needs (differentiated among schools), considering different provider options, determining a storage strategy (local vs. cloud), providing network security, wiring classrooms, optimizing bandwidth and Wi-Fi, and regulating use to maximize network resources (p. 15-30).
- Connectivity Beyond the School Gates – This is the most socially revolutionary portion of the plan and it calls for providing access for all students and their communities outside of the school through mobile broadband, wired community buildings such as libraries and community centers, Wi-Fi-enabled busses, and school-based Wi-Fi networks for neighborhoods. In addition, issues such as curricular planning for connectivity needs, data management, auto-detection strategies, speed caps, priority access, content priority, and controlling of downloads need to be planned for (P. 30-46).
- Device Perspectives – The model of device ownership to be employed is one of the core issues to be determined – whether schools provide devices for all students, or if the initiative will be BYOD-oriented (bring your own device). There are pros and cons on both sides of this issue, but, in my mind, the most important is that if the devices are not provided by the schools, the initiative will not help bridge the Digital Divide for those most in need of technology. But regardless of the plan chosen, the proposal calls for devices to meet specific standards (TBD) for portability, interactivity, durability, and connectivity, among others (P. 45-58).
The involvement of many corporate powers in this effort lends hope that the economic obstacles inherent in this plan regarding broadband and equipment access could be overcome. Apple, Microsoft, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Blackboard, Dell, Discovery AT&T, Sprint , and Verizon are all on board and have contributed to the proposal, along with several other organizations. However, notable by their absence were representatives from either the NEA (National Education Association) or the AFT (American Federation of Teachers). Both of these are significant groups in terms of national educational leadership and their backing of the plan (as well as that of the vast numbers of teachers who belong to them) is crucial for this effort to move forward. The burden of planning and managing this transformation is going to be on the shoulders of teachers, so they need to have a very significant voice in the early stages of the discussion. NEA and AFT involvement will help remedy this situation should those organizations choose to become involved.
Ultimately, the financial constraints facing this effort may kill it. We live in society that prides itself on rugged individualism and increasingly abdicates the individual of any responsibility for others in need. There is little reason for hope that a universal and monumental initiative such as this can truly get off the ground without public support, corporate sponsorship, and federal subsidy. In particular, there is absolutely no way that this project can come to fruition without significant federal subsidizing of the equipment and broadband access and a concerted political campaign to make the citizenry aware of the importance of such an initiative.
Will Higher Ed Learn the Playbook Too?
I have painted an unintentionally bleak picture of the actuality of the Digital Textbook Playbook going into full effect, but if it should ever be fully realized, the implications for higher education are almost as profound as they would be for K-12. If every prospective domestic student enters college with the experience and expectation that textbooks are digital, colleges and universities will not be able to ignore the trend. They will have to adapt or risk serious blowback from students and their families. There is almost no scenario in which a national K-12 adoption of digital textbooks would not force higher ed to also change.
This means we could be looking at a complete abandonment of the paper-based textbook within the next five years throughout all levels of education if the DTP is successful. This plan could be the most significant educational initiative since desegregation, or maybe even the start of mandatory, universal public education itself. Let’s hope that it happens, as it would be an invigorating change for education and really would be a huge step toward moving education out of the industrial age and into the information age.