Article by Donna Davis
From the September/October 2017 Net Assets magazine
Even as independent schools digitize one process, record and relic after another, they’ve been slow to adopt digital textbooks. Why is that, when iPads and other electronic learning devices are increasingly common, and digital texts are cheaper to purchase, easier to update and less physically burdensome than print books? “The financial and educational benefits of digital learning materials will eventually outweigh the outdated paper textbook dependence in K–12 education,” predicted Hanover Research’s 2014 report, “Emerging and Future Trends in K–12 Education.”
The reality is more complex for independent schools, according to Christopher Butler, a Certified Education Technology Leader (CETL) and assistant head of school for information services at St. John’s Preparatory School. (See Butler's article, "At Your IT Service")
For starters, intense competition in the publishing world has spawned buyouts and mergers, and many publishers have not consolidated their various platforms and tools. This means a school using digital texts might have to use three different apps or platforms to support three different texts from one publisher alone. “This makes it very hard to manage, both for the school and for the student,” Butler said.
Moreover, publishers have focused more on public schools and higher education because of higher volume and revenue streams. Outside of Apple’s iBooks, most licensing systems are geared to distribution models in which school districts purchase blocks of licenses that they distribute to students each year and recover at the end of the year. Many independent schools ask families to purchase textbooks directly, Butler observed.
Finally, consider teacher and department autonomy. It’s common for independent school faculty to have ownership of textbook choices, said Butler. “This means that different teachers will choose different texts from different publishers or different platforms, and then there is no unified way to manage those digital texts easily.” By comparison, public school systems often manage the choices and work with digital textbook aggregators.
But independent schools might migrate toward digital texts yet. Butler is particularly interested in open educational resources, or OER. These are “free from licensing hassles” and have boosters in the U.S. Department of Education and the K–12 edtech world,” he said. “But they do require a bit of work from the teacher and department to aggregate the materials in such a way that they match up to the curriculum.” He added that an early pioneer in this market is the CK–12 Foundation, which develops digital textbooks, apps and learning platforms.
A few years ago, Sacred Heart Schools of Chicago made the switch to digital textbooks. Now about 70 percent of the books used by students in the middle school are digital, according to Brian McGuinness, CFO. Where cost savings so far have not been significant, “You do it because you want the best outcome for the kids,” he said, noting that digital texts ensure students are getting the most current material.
Digital texts also offer a competitive advantage, McGuinness said. “There is a perception as well as a reality that certain methods and approaches can have better outcomes for students.” Ignore them and “you risk being viewed as a dinosaur by parents.”
Digital texts at Sacred Heart have a physical advantage too, in that they literally ease the burden for students. Because middle-school students already had iPads and Chromebooks, e-textbooks were a natural transition, said Maggie Nass, controller. “We were going away from the 40 pounds of textbooks to the multimedia approach,” supplemented with paperback novels and other exceptions.
As for publishers and licensing, the school uses at least three different vendors chosen by the curriculum director. Nass noted that the transition was not difficult from the business office perspective. “It’s a prepaid expense and expensed over five or six years.” But contract negotiations do require a bit more time due to licensing issues, she noted.
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