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Monday, February 6, 2012

The e-book in education: jackpot or snake oil?

The Obama administration recently announced a challenge to schools and companies to get digital textbooks in students' hands within five years.  This is comparable to initiatives in other countries to move to all-digital textbooks -- with prominent examples being South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh.  The announcement was made by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski. 

The administration noted that digital books are viewed as a way to provide interactive learning, potentially save money and get updated material faster to students.  "Potentially" is a key word here, as there is little evidence that digital will save money, particularly over the long term.  While there is some evidence that interactive digital tools by some of the traditional textbook publishers do improve learning outcomes, there is still much question about the educational value of technology.  One news story uses the following quote to point out this challenge:
Clifford Stoll, the author of "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway," may have made the best point for the opposition when he compared computers to the filmstrips of his youth. "We loved them because we didn't have to think for an hour, teachers loved them because they didn't have to teach, and parents loved them because it showed their schools were high-tech. But no learning happened."
The news story goes on to question the true affordability of digital, which requires access to technology which may not be evenly distributed among public schools.  The administration hopes that digital course materials and the technology they run on will become more affordable in coming years. 

According to the original Associated Press story, the government also released a 67-page "playbook" to schools that promotes the use of digital textbooks and offers guidance.

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