In 2013, President Obama announced ConnectED, “a signature initiative focused on transforming teaching and learning through digital connectivity and content.” In April 2015, Obama announced the Open Ebooks Initiative to help address the issue of the digital divide, as it affects students’ access to e-books in school and at home by “improving access to digital content and to public libraries.” This involved a group of major alliances:
- “Commitments from publishers to find ways to make sure their content is available to low-income youth in America. Major publishers are announcing they will make over $250 million in free eBooks available to low-income students.”
- “Nonprofits and libraries are partnering with each other to create an app that can deliver this content and materials from the public domain.”
- “$2 billion in private-sector commitments.”
- “Federal Communications Commission (FCC) funding for school and library connectivity that includes $2 billion specifically for Wi-Fi, and $1.5 billion more in annual funding.”
All of this is part of Obama’s planned “five-year transformation in American education” intended “to meet the President’s goal of connecting 99 percent of students to high-speed broadband in their classrooms and libraries.”
Ebooks Becoming Mainstream in K-12
Declaring that “digital content use in schools is no longer a new frontier,” Overdrive released a new survey of digital content—ebooks audiobooks and digital textbooks—in schools on April 1, 2016. In collaboration with ASCD—“an organization of, by, and for education leaders”—the study included “more than 2,000 administrators at the school or district level in the U.S.” The results found that “digital content currently occupies about one-third of the instructional materials budget and the use of digital content continues to grow. Contributors to this growth include strategic planning (73 percent have a device strategy and 64 percent align their digital content plan with this strategy), recognized benefits (including the ability to deliver individualized instruction, allowing students to practice independently, and greater student attention/engagement), as well as movement toward 1:1 programs.”
“Out of the 6 types of digital content offerings presented in the [ASCD/Overdrive] survey, the largest concentration of respondents selected informational texts/literary nonfiction, aligned to units of study (74 percent) as the one that would be most helpful to educators in supporting students. Many have incorporated it in the classroom or curriculum, while a far smaller percent have only gone as far as adding ebooks into their school media center. Although digital content currently occupies only a third of their instructional materials and budget, one of the key takeaways from this study is that the use of digital content is growing.”
“The use of digital content in schools is no longer a new frontier, but many comments from these educators expressed confusion and uncertainty about their long-term path with digital content. It is incumbent upon the publishers and distributors of digital content to address these concerns and provide solutions to educators grappling with this new content, offering options that meet the educator’s need for content and providers that support differentiated or personalized learning. Digital solutions that make the technology elegantly simple for intuitive use by teachers and students will go a long way to addressing these administrators’ concerns about the ultimate success their staff will have with digital content.”
The ASCD/OverDrive report also cites a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt paper, titled 2015 HMH Educator Conference Report, that “showed educators to be optimistic about the new tools that e-learning provides, with 97% of them using it in the classroom in some form. But the survey of 1,008 educators, 82 percent of whom were teachers and the rest administrators, also pointed to anxiety and frustration about the confluence of adopting new technology and new academic standards at a time of limited professional development budgets.” The major benefits educators noted in adopting technology for the classroom included increased student engagement, improved access to content on-demand, and the enhanced ability to provide differentiated/individualized instruction.
More Studies—Still No Definitive Answers
The Project Tomorrow report, titled Digital Learning 24/7: Understanding Technology-Enhanced Learning in the Lives of Today’s Students, drew from a 2014 survey of 431,231 students in more than 8,000 schools and 2,600 districts both in the United States and around the world. The report’s four major conclusions were:
- Access to technology, especially when provided by the school, makes students’ use of these tools and resources deeper and more sophisticated.
- As a result, such students place a higher importance on technology in furthering their education.
- In turn, they see these tools and resources as crucial in developing college, career, and citizenship skills.
- This connection to technology leads to a grounding in active, self-directed, independent learning that carries forward into college and beyond.
In 2015, 475 American school and district leaders in 35 states were surveyed by LightSail Education, a company that sells a tablet-based literacy platform, and Baker & Taylor. This study found the K-12 marketplace in the middle of a major—but slowly evolving digital shift with 60% of their sample describing their ebook penetration at less than 10% of the books students read in 2015, yet predicting that the numbers will rise to 94% by 2017. Other findings of significance were that schools preferred (by 40%) to purchase ebooks in the traditional library model, “in which the school owns the texts, and students can check books in and out of a ‘digital library’ on their devices,” only 16% preferring a subscription model and 4% in some type of rental agreement. At the same time, 40% remained undecided or uncertain about the best model for their school systems.
The Fall release of the School Library Journal 2015 Survey of Ebook Usage in U.S. School (K-12) Libraries survey found that ebooks have bounced back to being included in 56% of the 916 U.S. school libraries in their survey. The lack of growth was “that kids haven’t warmed to ebooks. They use them for research and class assignments, but left to their own devices (or lack thereof), they seem to prefer print. As a result, circulation has plateaued or dropped.”
This has left school media librarians to “wonder if they promoted ebook collections more or offered more popular titles that kids would use them more. Or, could it be a case of leading a horse to water but not being able to make him drink? Meanwhile, some library media specialists are boosting their collections, while others are cutting back, leery of spending scarce budget dollars on a resource that few students use.”
Ebooks in K-12: Issues & Potential
Writing in School Library Journal in September 2015, Matt Collette noted that “the school ebooks landscape in some ways parallels the national picture of children’s engagement with ebooks. While the content is there, technology to use it may still be catching up, and managing collections can be complicated.”
Scholastic’s 2015 Kids and Family Reading Report also looked at trends in children’s literacy, reading and ebooks. In 2010, 35% of kids had read at least one ebook, largely at home, and by 2014 that number was up to 61%. In 2012, 12% of the surveyed children had read an ebook at school, yet by 2014, the number jumped to 21%. The report noting that “Nearly two-thirds of children (65%)—up from 2012 (60%)—agree that they’ll always want to read books in print even through there are ebooks available.”
These results parallel studies done outside North America as well. Earlier this year, David Kleeman of the British-based research firm Dubit reported on a Fall 2015 survey of 1,000 families in four countries, which found that “when they read, 70% of young people either ‘strongly prefer’ or ‘tend to prefer’ print books.” Further, Kleeman noted in a Publishers Weekly article that “on a tablet, everything’s just a Home button away; ebooks compete directly with games, apps, videos, social media and communications. Print copies, moreover, need to entice the child to put down the tablet and pick up the book.”
According to the Association of American Publishers, book publishing is a $28 billion marketplace in the U.S. In 2014, AAP reported that children’s and young-adult categories represented the largest sales increase in the trade category, “which had double-digit growth in both revenue (20.9%) and units (13.5%),” surpassing “the adult fiction market with 843 million units and 746 million units sold respectively.” In a Publishers Weekly article, it was reported that “for 2014, publisher revenue for the pre-K–12 categories that contain e-books (bundles, standalone software, and platforms) breaks down into the following: bundles account for $1.2 billion, and standalone software and platforms account for $382 million, for a combined total of roughly $1.6 billion.” Last year AAP began to track subscription services for ebooks and audiobooks and 2015 data will be released in June 2016.
The Pew Research Center surveyed more than 2,700 American adults in October 2015 finding that “people are increasingly aware that they can borrow ebooks at their public library. Some 38% say their public library has ebooks, compared with 31% who said this in 2012. Those more likely to be aware that their library has ebooks are college graduates (52% say they are aware of e-book lending), parents (44%) and those in homes where the annual income is over $75,000 (44%).”
Yet only 16% of the 38% who said they knew their public library offered ebooks have ever checked one out. Awareness of resources and services is a good first start, but only a very tentative beginning. We now need far more information on why people choose ebooks, their experiences with ebooks, their preferences for formats, topics and other key information. For a technology that was supposed to change publishing forever, we, perhaps, have to wait a bit longer to know how ebooks, full-text information, and other variants fit into the future of books and reading.
Ebooks offer clear benefits in terms of being able to personalize learning, at a lower cost, and increased convenience for all users (including users with disabilities). Yet, the movement to electronic resources has proven to be far more complicated than pundits predicted in the early days of the digital transformation.
Ebooks: Popular….but Do They Truly Replace Print?
Naomi Baron, author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press, 2015), noted in a recent EdWeek interview that “in the last seven or eight years, with the growth of digital reading and changes in the cost structure of digital vs. print, cost considerations were often driving pedagogical choices without our knowing whether pedagogy was the same regardless of medium. In an educational setting, we are assuming that bringing more and more digital reading into K-12 classrooms is improving students’ education. Some studies suggest that basic comprehension levels are not as good when reading digitally vs. in print, but the tests are not refined enough that I know the answer.”
“But if you ask readers,” Baron continues, “they will tell you things that are very different from what we as teachers or school administrators or governors have assumed to be the case. If you survey students about which medium is best for concentration—reading in print vs. the whole range of digital devices—92 percent say they concentrate best when reading print. If cost were the same, 87 percent say for schoolwork, they prefer reading in print. Similarly, if you ask them about reading shorter texts for academic work, it’s all over the map; but for long texts, 86 percent prefer hard copy.”
“The publishing industry is overwhelming saying, at least for the foreseeable future,” Baron believes, “that it is a both/and world. It’s going to be digital and print, and for different purposes we will use different things. If you ask me to look in my crystal ball, for at least the next five years, we are going to have some things in print and some things digital, and it will differ a lot from person to person, age group to age group, and culture to culture. In the U.S., as of now, roughly 20 percent of book sales are digital and roughly 80 percent are print….Let’s figure out the things that are really great to do in digital media and print, or what might work well in both formats. But outside of a small number of people, we’re not thinking about that enough. Is the level of richness we want for children going to be available if we just assume that nature or commerce should take its course? There are great things you can only do digitally for learning, but it’s not all of learning, and we have to figure out which parts and why and what age levels to say what to.”
Working to Use Data to Discover More About Reading in Every Format
Everyone is into metadata and analytics today. A recent report in the New York Times described how “data about people’s reading habits [is being used] to radically reshape how publishers acquire, edit and market books.” Led by major online platforms like Kindle, Nook/Barnes & Noble, Apple and Amazon, we now have access to very detailed information on the reading habits of the ereading public. One company, Jellybooks, is making this level of analysis available to publishers now as well. The Jellybooks model is to offer “a special kind of book candy for readers.”
Jellybooks offers readers “ebooks free-of-charge from leading publishers. These are Advance Readings Copies (ARCs) that are made available as ebook for test reading purposes. In many cases these will be available to you even before they are released to the general public. In return, we ask that you help us understand how you read books. This is really simple: read the ebook we provide and at the end of each chapter click the ‘sync reading stream’ button in return for receiving the free ebook. You may also choose to write a review, but this is entirely optional. We are primarily interested in your reading data. The data Jellybooks receives will be evaluated on behalf of the author and publisher to help them better understand the audience for specific titles and how people read them.”
Begun in 2010 in a meeting with Random House UK officials, Jellybooks’ long-term goal is to radically change the way that we create books. “We are working on tools to make discovery and sharing easier, to channel the best of social conversations. We use machines to manage the abundance and bring order to an unruly mess. We never forget that machines are designed to help people and make life easier. We believe in simplicity and human ingenuity and that computers should only augment these.”
Preparing Children for the 21st Century Future
Obama’s efforts to bring everyone—and especially children—across the digital divide is leading to progress, however slow. The Open eBooks, “a partnership between Digital Public Library of America, The New York Public Library, and First Book, with content support from digital books distributor Baker & Taylor” and support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Institute of Museum and Library Services is accumulating content—mostly out-of-copyright at this time. However, content is only good if or when it is used—and especially for children’s education, if it leads to academic performance. Clearly the jury is still out on this one. Rather than a blitz, ebooks for education appears to be more a slow evolution.
“The demands of readers and learners around the world will continue to morph and change,” John Ingram, Chairman and CEO of Ingram Content Group recently explained to Digital Book World. “We’re all on a journey—one that isn’t always clear or linear, but one that has opportunity and will continue to evolve.” This is one thing for which apparently everyone involved in ebooks and education would agree.
Nancy K. Herther is Librarian for American Studies, Anthropology & Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. firstname.lastname@example.org