New York City schools are using a variety of technologies, but very few have given a computer or a tablet to each student
At a school visit in Arizona this week, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan brought to light a fact that many of us who work in education technology have known for some time.
“As a nation,” he said, “we spend $7 to $9 billion a year on textbooks that, by the time you receive them, are out of date. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Even so, in a high-tech nation that spawned companies like Apple, Google and Amazon, most of our public schools remain remarkably low tech. While some major school districts, like Los Angeles, are bucking the trend (this year the city bought tablets for more than 30,000 students) a recent study found, among K-12 schools, just 21 per cent are currently using digital textbooks.
New York City, the nation’s largest school district, is no exception. While schools have piloted several different instructional approaches that leverage technology, we still lack a comprehensive solution.
But that could be about to change.
For the past few months, the city has been seeking proposals to help the create the nation’s most extensive e-textbook store, from which schools can search for, buy and download digital books. The plans are due this week.
Moving textbooks from paper to digital form is an important first step in modernizing the city's 1,600 traditional public schools.
It could ultimately ensure that every student, in every school, has access to the latest texts — something any parent with a pile of photocopied pages knows isn’t the case today.
And if done well, this technology has the power to elevate the learning experience and raise student achievement. Teachers will have the power literally at their fingertips to have interactive classroom discussions, differentiate instruction down to a single student and receive real-time feedback on what students are comprehending.
New York City’s considerable buying power could also help remove one of the biggest barriers to digital learning-access to content. Publishers who rely on the nation’s largest school system for business will certainly feel the pressure to convert more of their texts to a digital format.
But to be successful, the city's strategy must also consider several other essential components, including connectivity and content delivery.
“Owning” a digital book does very little unless you have a device on which you can access it and a network on which to run it.
On the device front, schools are using many different types of technology, but very few have given a computer or tablet to each student. This means that — at least for now — the e-books won’t be accessible to most students or even to teachers.
In other words, New York’s public schools will have the nation’s most robust online bookstore and few customers who can access it.
Infrastructure is another issue that could hamper the city’s efforts. A recent report released by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and highlighted by the Daily News this week, showed that three-quarters of city schools might not currently have the download speeds necessary to support such an e-textbook system. Ensuring that all schools can take advantage of this new technology is going to be critical to its success and to closing that so-called digital divide we hear so much about.
Finally, an effective solution must begin to provide our city’s teachers with the widest selection of content possible to enable their ability to teach to the various interests and needs of the students in their classes. And it must provide it on a digital platform that fosters an interactive learning environment.
Plopping pre-loaded tablets to a district-full of students may sound enticing, but it will do nothing to address the deep-seeded, underlying issues plaguing today’s educational landscape.
With the potential to reduce long-term costs while at the same time improving the classroom experience, technology can be a game changer for public education. But it needs to be implemented thoughtfully. If not, it will just be another well-intentioned strategy that falls short of expectations.
Ben Lowinger is executive vice president of Copia, a New York City-based education technology company.