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Obama administration wants all students using digital textbooks in five years

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan and FCC chairman Julius Genachowski are urging schools and companies to get digital textbooks in the hands of all American students within the next five years.

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For all of their benefits, paper textbooks are heavy, expensive, and often out of date by the time students get hold of them. It turns out the folks at Apple aren't the only ones trying to make the push to digital textbooks — in an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and FCC chairman Julius Genachowski state that the Obama administration has set a goal for getting digital textbooks in the hands of all students, and that goal is a very ambitious five years. The benefits of moving to digital are of course numerous, but Genachowski puts it well when discussing the flexibility of digital: "When they get to something they don’t know, the device can let them explore."

The administration has been public about its intention to make the move to digital since the President's 2011 State of the Union address, and the FCC has moved toward implementing the plan with its recent release of a 67-page document titled the Digital Textbook Playbook. The Playbook looks at both the benefits of the plan — the Department of Education says that technology-assisted learning can get students learning 30-80 percent faster — as well as the implementation, including how to figure out the amount of broadband capacity a school will need, the benefits of going with local storage versus the cloud, and how to make sure students have connectivity after they leave for the day. It's also worth noting that the plan is far from iPad-centric — it mentions smartphones, tablets, and laptops, with deployment ideas for each.

The biggest factor in implementing the switch to digital is of course cost, but the authors of the Playbook estimate the savings at about $600 per student per year, owing to reduced copy and paper costs, savings from online assessments, and — because digital learning has been shown to be more engaging than traditional methods — expected cost reductions from lowered dropout rates. There are definitely big upfront costs of moving to digital, and the cost savings are certainly not guaranteed, but it’s good to see the federal government making digital learning a priority.