Textbook publishing for the K-12 population is a booming $8 billion industry, allowing three primary companies, McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to capture nearly 85 percent of market, according to procon.org, a nonprofit source dedicated to revealing both sides of controversial issues.On the other hand, tablets are a $75 billion dollar industry.

The frequently debated topic focuses on whether to stick with traditional, textbook delivery of the plethora of heavy, hardback books which, in certain STEM fields, are antiquated almost as soon as they are received or to migrate toward digital book delivery to keep pace with the 21st century of online information access.

Tablet or laptop advocates ascribe to the data that supports improved academic outcomes for students using electronic devices to content access in lieu of tangible books. Further, a single device can maintain hundreds of up-to-date sources without the weight of traditional books. Word searches can more quickly access query points and a variety of support strategies are typically linked with content reinforcement to support a variety of learning styles. Public Broadcasting Service recently concluded a study in which 77 percent of teachers found technology increased student motivation to learn. Further, e-Books, according to the Federal Communications Commission, can save schools between $250-$1,000 per student each year.

Textbook advocates, on the other hand, cite up-front implementation costs, technology support costs and fragility of electronic device maintenance as reasons to avoid the digital tools. Further, many also indicate that a lack of on-line provider density in poverty rich areas may limiting this population’s potential for academic success. Clearly, there are also many schools who, in trying to live somewhere in-between the textbook overload and digital entrenchment divide are using a blend of text and on-line tools to maximize student learning and minimize costs. This is certainly a work in progress for the majority of systems where a balancing act is regularly in play.

Perhaps the only thing that is certain in the debate between texts and electronic tools for the K-12 population is that it is unlikely that all will ever agree. However, much like those who long for the return of the chalkboards based on past practice or the return of the horse drawn carriage, change is inevitable. The ways that those changes are embraced may be the difference between empowering the next generation versus limiting it to the tools of years gone by. Not surprisingly, more fiscally stable systems are more likely to have demonstrated pro-active approaches to utilization of electronic technology than systems for whom financial security is limited. Unfortunately, this digital divide may truly prove to underscore the have’s from the have not’s once again. While no ideal solution exists as each district finds itself in a somewhat unique position based on its fiscal reserves, student needs and legislated mandates, it is clear that the academic world in which the current students live is dramatically different than the one in which their parents or grandparents were raised.

Access to information is now seemingly infinite and instantaneous when digital tools are used appropriately. While employment of said tools is somewhat more complex than opening a print textbook, it also provides a knowledge base so far beyond what even the best books can offer. Interestingly, while the adults debate the viability of tool use within the academic environment, the students are actively engaged in upgrading the latest versions of tools, searches and interactive segues available. Truly, the question is not if electronic access will eventually replace textbook delivery as the primary mode of transmission, but when it will occur. For districts with the means to offer such upgrades, a significant majority have already adopted the option. For those districts with dramatically more limited access to funds for academic adjustment, the evolution will likely be a longer time in coming, further entrenching the divide between the schools which have access and those to whom access is still denied.

Angela Farmer is an assistant professor of educational leadership for Mississippi State University, a certified Myers-Briggs trainer and a former P-12 educational leader. Readers can contact Farmer at asfarmer@colled.msstate.edu

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