The Future Is Here, So Where Are The eBooks?

Nowhere else has information technology had a greater impact than in schools. From internet access to multimedia content, testing and study aids, computing devices have become an everyday part of educational institutions from preschool through high school. However, ebooks remain a scarcity. Prior to the advent of tablet computing devices and their many-hours long battery life, ebooks were less practical. Even small laptops would last significantly less than the eight to nine hours in a typical school day. With seven to eleven hours of power, tablet devices bridge that gap. Additionally, many Android devices with what is called Elephant Glass are proving to be nearly as durable as some ruggedized laptops. But the problem goes deeper than deciding on which device to deliver the content.
As early as 2005, while working with the technology department for our local school district, I began attending the annual TCEA (Texas Computer Education Association) conventions in Austin, Texas. Each year TCEA hosts one of the largest conventions of its kind in the country; gathering teachers, school administrators, IT professionals, and technology vendors under the expansive roof of the Austin Convention Center for six days of seminars, conferences, and demonstrations designed to promote technology in educational settings. In spite of this herculean effort, what should have been one of the most obvious attendee groups was conspicuously absent; textbook publishers.
Ebooks have been with us for long enough that they have become a driving force in computing device markets; namely tablets and dedicated ereaders. However, in the area where it would seem they could demand the greatest attention, they have made very little inroads.
The reasons given vary depending upon which side of the fence you stand. Textbook consumers, education institutions and government entities blame publishing companies. Textbook publishers blame the high cost of custom-created content and the ease with which copyrighted material can be pirated.
Regardless of finger pointing, Texas has taken steps to rectify the problem. The State is the second largest purchaser of textbooks in the country (California is the largest); in previous years, spending more than $600 million dollars in science textbooks, alone. The State passed two pieces of legislation designed to change things; House Bills 4294 and 2488 set the stage for Texas to move into the digital textbook arena. HB 4294 authorizes the State's commissioner of education to approve content and computer hardware without the authority of the State's board of education. HB 2488 lets the State offer open-source content to school districts throughout the state; this also without the previously required authorization from the board of education.
The nail in the coffin for publishers, in the eyes of State government, may have come during legislative subcommittee hearings when subcommittee members learned at least one publisher provided discounted ebook pricing in other states but not in Texas. The reason given for ebooks costing the same as paper books was the custom content rather than any difference in production and delivery costs. During the same hearing the publisher's representative, unintentionally acknowledged, the actual reason was a matter of market demand. That is to say, in Texas the State writes the check. In many other states, individual school districts have the ability to negotiate and make purchases.
The door, in Texas at least, has finally been opened for the adoption of electronic textbooks to finally make their way into classrooms across the state. There are still issues to be addressed such as delivery and storage logistics. Many school districts' technology departments are already overworked and understaffed. Adding the need to support an army of digital readers to those support demands will, at best, be challenging.
In the end it remains to be seen whether the reality will live up to the dream. Some progress is better than no progress, and as school districts acclimate themselves to the legislative changes, we wait for the digital revolution to trickle down.

Author: William Butler

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