Digital Textbooks, OER, and More from Digital Learning Day

Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski made the Obama Administration’s big announcement at Wednesday’s Digital Learning Day festivities: the release of a “digital textbook playbook” to support the goal of ensuring that every student has a digital textbook in the next five years. The playbook is a helpful resource, the federal involvement helps to legitimize these efforts, and the FCC’s initiatives to increase broadband access are notable (in particular, the movement towards allowing schools to provide access to students outside of school hours). But since textbooks and other educational content are controlled at the state and local levels, this is mostly a bully pulpit exercise.

Still, the chatter in various social media about the announcement extend two faulty themes that needlessly limit educational technology discussions.

The first misguided frame, expressed by Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio in USA Today, is whether technology, in this case digital textbooks, is a “magic bullet.” Pondiscio is right: Of course it’s not and anybody who claims so is foolish. But debating this point gets us nowhere.

What’s most important to understand about the digital textbook effort is that it’s an opportunity to open up a large amount of existing public money that has been locked into use by a very small and closed set of publishers. Opening up classrooms to new technologies in no way guarantees that textbooks or digital instructional materials will be better. But, it does provide the opportunity to shift power to educators, offering the possibility for not only more customization by teachers, but also access to a greater array of better materials. And, smaller publishers, including those who offer free content, such as Core Knowledge, may finally have a chance to enter classrooms based on the strength of their content, rather than their distribution and sales teams.

The second faulty frame is the conspiratorial suspicion of nefarious intent: any technology initiative is just a cover for private profit-seeking. But let’s be serious. We wouldn’t be having this discussion around school modernization. Construction companies make a lot of money on educational projects. We understand though, that this is a reason to exercise strong oversight of public funds. It’s not a reason to oppose modernizing crumbling facilities.

In reality, opposition to digital textbooks cements corporate control of instructional materials. This is about technology-driven industry change. Again, our K-12 schools already spend billions each year on textbooks — almost all purchased from the same small set of publishers. New companies are surely aiming at these dollars, just as Google, Facebook, and Craigslist have siphoned off newspaper ad revenues. And, this industry change also opens the doors for open educational resources (OER) that can be freely shared and modified. This is the real battle, between new and old ways of doing business, open and closed, as seen in the recent debate over SOPA. If there’s a critique here, it’s that there was little sign of the OER community in either the FCC’s announcement or the “Digital Textbook Collaborative” that it convened.

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-Bill Tucker

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