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Summer 2010
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Learning to go digital

As schools and teachers use more digital content in teaching, solution providers can be key enablers.

by Tam Harbert

The recent introduction of the Apple iPad and the growing popularity of the Kindle have spurred interest in digital textbooks. But although education solution providers can sell e-readers and other hardware for digital content, the greatest opportunity lies in becoming a trusted adviser for schools as they move into their digital future.

The point is that educational content is becoming digital, and the key is to figure out ways to enhance learning with digital content and devices, says Keith R. Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking.

"It's not about technology. It's about a fundamental change in the way teaching and learning takes place," agrees Erich Tusch, district supervisor of technology at Pascack Valley Regional High School District in Montvale, N.J. The 2,100-student district has been moving away from hard-copy textbooks since it launched a one-to-one mobile computing initiative with laptops six years ago.

Don't Judge a Digital Textbook by its Cover

Will iPads and Kindles be the first digital textbooks?

The Kindle and other e-readers allow users to highlight and take notes on their own content purchased specifically for the device. But users are limited or prevented from browsing, displaying, highlighting or taking notes on third-party or web content, says William D. Chesser, general manager of VitalSource. In fact, students gave the Kindle a failing grade in pilot tests at several college campuses last year. In addition, the Kindle doesn't comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires that technology be accessible to people with disabilities, says Chesser. The iPad, on the other hand, is 508-compliant and has more education-friendly features, such as web browsing, than the Kindle. It may represent a breakthrough for digital textbooks, Chesser says.

The students in the Pascack Valley Regional High School District use Apple MacBooks. Tech supervisor Erich Tusch is not sure the iPad is physically sturdy enough to take the 24/7 abuse of high school users, and he thinks the screen-based keyboard might not be adequate for all the writing required of students. In addition, the iLife Suite, which comes with the MacBook, isn't yet available for the iPad. But he's keeping his eye on it. "I could certainly see (the iPad) coming our way."

Promedia Technology Services Inc., which has worked with Pascack Valley for more than a decade, helped the district design and implement the wireless network upon which the initiative depends. "If we don't have a working, stable network environment, none of this change in education could ever take place," says Tusch.

That's the primary role that solution providers can play in the transition to digital learning, says Gene Murphy, president of Promedia, which focuses on networking and infrastructure. About 90 percent of the reseller's revenue comes from the education market. As schools move to digital content, he sees revenue opportunities in building, upgrading and maintaining the network and storage. The next step for Pascack County, for example, is to upgrade to an 802.11.n network, according to Tusch.

But Murphy says he hasn't been involved in the "book" part of the digital strategy because that depends more on curriculum directors and textbook publishers. Indeed, with digital textbooks, says Tusch, "the main issue is not a technical issue, it's working with publishers that are trying to protect their profits and their livelihood."

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Other schools may be developing digital content but are still far from putting digital textbooks in students' hands. In the 27,000-student school district of Charles County, Md., CIO Bijay Devkota has been running a digital content project since 2006. Its goal is to combine textbook content and other resources, including audio and video, into packaged lesson plans for teachers. So far, the school district has developed curricula for 11 subject areas, but Devkota doesn't plan to adopt laptops, tablets or e-readers for the students anytime soon.

Maryland solution provider Daly Computers helped introduce Charles County to VitalSource Technologies Inc., the digital textbook provider it's using in the project, says Ryan Yu, president of Daly Computers, which makes 60 percent of its revenue from education. Yu sees it as part of his service to advise customers about new capabilities such as digital textbooks, but his experience of promoting VitalSource to clients hasn't produced much revenue for him. Part of the problem is institutional resistance in the schools, although Charles County is an exception. Another problem is lack of incentive for resellers, he says. Solution providers like him -- who have strong company and personal relationships in both technology and academia -- should be able to capitalize more on this trend. "It would seem to be a natural engagement for us," he says. But neither hardware manufacturers, textbook publishers nor distributors have yet devised channel programs around digital textbooks, he says.

This could be a good avenue for VitalSource to pursue, says William D. Chesser, general manager of VitalSource, who adds that the company is busy "trying to come up with something."

 

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