States Continue Plugging Into Digital Textbooks

22 states have officially endorsed digital textbooks, and the White House has set a deadline of 2017 for all students to use electronic materials
by | September 24, 2012 AT 6:00 PM

In the 21st century, the concept of hardcover textbooks—dog-eared, highlighted and recycled through the generations—seems positively quaint. And yet, it’s still the norm for most American students, despite the penetration of new technology (think iPods, Kindles and smartphones) into almost every other realm of everyday life. States are coming around on digital textbooks, though, according to a new report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), and a few are setting themselves up as early models for best practices.

As of September 2012, 22 states have endorsed digital textbooks in some official capacity, such as funding flexibility or the launching of an online open education resource. But that means that more than half of states have not—and the United States still spends a combined $5.5 billion on core instructional content, according to SETDA, much of which is tied to physical learning materials. The Obama administration has promoted the adoption of virtual textbooks and even called on states to move students to all digital materials by 2017.

“If we want American students to be the best prepared to compete in the 21st century economy,” Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, told Stateline in April, “we can’t allow a majority of our students to miss out on the opportunities of digital textbooks.”

And according to SETDA, several states have taken the lead in that movement.


Texas was one of the early adopters of digital textbooks—as far back as 1987, the state recognized electronic materials as valid for instructional use. But last year, state lawmakers changed their education funding structure to make it easier for schools to go the virtual route. Prior to 2011, school districts received a separate technology allotment (capped at $30 per student) for digital learning resources, but could spend unlimited funds on physical materials as long as they were purchased from a state-approved list.

But after legislation passed last year, the technology allotment was been eliminated, and digital textbooks have been folded in with more traditional resources. The state board of education still approves a list of materials that will transfer essential knowledge and skills, but the new law also gives districts the ability to seek out their own resources. According to SETDA, 30 percent of instructional materials in Texas schools are digital. The state has also set aside $10 million for a technology lending program, which allows districts to provide digital devices to students who can’t access that technology at home. Some Texas districts have taken that route on their own—as Governing reported in June, the McAllen Independent School District invested $20 million in local and federal funds to provide iPads to each of the 25,000 students in its low-income district.


Given the unlimited capacity of the Internet, some see the Web as a perfect home for resources that will stoke the endless pursuit of knowledge. Utah policymakers have placed themselves among those believers after the Office of Education announced in January that the state would create “open textbooks” in core subjects like language arts, science and math. School districts began adopting them at the start of this school year. That decision came on the heels of a two-year pilot project for online science textbooks in collaboration with Brigham Young University. The resources will be housed online by CK-12, a non-profit group that supports the adoption of open-source learning materials. Every summer, local teachers will update the content, and the districts can decide whether to distribute them electronically (via PDF or HTML, for example) or print them physically for students.

The expected cost-savings are substantial. According to a state analysis, one $80 textbook (used for six years) for a sample size of 5,000 students would be a $400,000 investment for a school district. Paying four teachers to work 60 hours over the summer to update a digital textbook, at $30 an hour, over six years would cost a district $152,000. And preliminary research from Utah’s two-year pilot project suggests that students learned as much from their online textbooks as they did from the traditional ones.


Virginia has a long history of technological innovation in its schools. It was an early adopter of online assessments, and in 2004, the state set up “Virtual Virginia,” which offered advanced placement courses virtually. It was also one of the first states to contribute its learning materials to iTunesU. In 2009, the state approved its first digital textbook for high school physics and, in 2010, launched “Beyond Textbooks,” a pilot program for school districts to encourage using mobile devices and their accompanying digital learning materials. In Henry County, for example, the program has expanded usage from 40 tablets in two classrooms to more than 3,000 students throughout the district.

And last month, Virginia entered a public-private partnership to release two interactive digital textbooks for high school finance and economics classes. They hold roughly 2,600 physical pages worth of materials along with multimedia elements such as graphing tools and embedded review questions. The state has uploaded one into the Apple Store (and plans to do the same for the other soon) and will sell digital versions for $14.99 to offset the production costs.

“We don’t have all the answers, but I think there is tremendous value in establishing pilot projects that spur innovation and help us better understand the technological, social, and policy challenges that schools face as they transition to digital content,” Tammy McGraw, director of the Virginia Office of Education Technology, told SETDA. “Schools clearly benefit from what we learn, but I think we also help shape better products and resources for schools.”