Obama's goal: an e-textbook in every student's hand by 2017.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will recommend today at a summit of industry and education officials that states modify the textbook adoption process, allowing K-12 schools to use taxpayer funding once reserved for printed books on iPads, Kindles and the like — as well as software.
They'll begin pushing publishers, computer tablet makers and Internet service providers to work together and lower costs if they want to sell their products to the nation's 50 million schoolkids.
Administration officials say Web-connected instructional materials help students learn more efficiently and give teachers real-time information on how well kids understand material. "We spend $7 billion a year on textbooks, and for many students around the country, they're out of date," Genachowski says. In five years, he predicts, "we could be spending less as a society on textbooks and getting more for it."
While up-front costs for tablet computers are high — new iPads start at $499 — he says moving from paper to digital "saves a ton of money" in the long run. "We absolutely want to push the process."
Matt MacInnis, founder and CEO of the e-textbook company Inkling, says the transition is essential. "There is no future for American education unless we figure this out. There's no segment of any industry anywhere in the world anymore that doesn't rely on technology to get its job done."
Based in San Francisco, Inkling sells college textbooks online and by the chapter, making them available for $2.99 apiece, in most cases, in Apple's iTunes Store.
Robert Pondiscio, spokesman for the Core Knowledge Foundation, a Virginia-based non-profit group that promotes a "coherent, cumulative and content-specific core curriculum," says he's dubious that simply moving materials online or onto e-readers will improve schools, dismissing much of the enthusiasm around educational technology as "magical thinking."
"I wish there was even 10% as much thought as to what is going to come through these devices as in getting them into kids' hands," he says. "It's not a magic bullet. We need to worry about what is on these tablets while they're sitting in kids' laps."
Karen Cator, the U.S. Department of Education's technology director, says moving classwork onto devices such as tablets gives students the ability to do research, check their work and get feedback from teachers, among other uses. "One of the opportunities to extend the school day is by providing students with interactive and engaging environments outside of school," she says.