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Digital Textbooks: U.S. Government Ready for Next Chapter

Posted in CEO Jose Ferreira on March 29, 2012 by

In case you haven’t heard, the Federal Government, led by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the U.S. Department of Education, is extremely serious about getting digital textbooks in every U.S. child’s hands within five years.

I’m in Washington, DC today to attend the Digital Textbooks Initiative Meeting, and they’ve brought together an extraordinary group for this meeting, including school districts, publishers, device manufacturers, and eLearning start-ups. It’s an honor to be here. Other attendees include CEOs and Presidents from companies like Pearson, Discovery Education, McGraw-Hill, Apple, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sprint, and T-Mobile. They all represent diverse sectors of the digital learning ecosystem, and all will play crucial roles in the ongoing digital transition.

So what’s so great about digital textbooks?

After all, as Karen Cator, the Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, concedes, “the term ‘digital textbook’ does not necessarily inspire innovation.” Many people think a digital textbook means reading a huge PDF on their computer.

But in reality, a new crop of digital textbooks is emerging that’s vastly more sophisticated than a mere collection of one-size-fits-all online content. As Cator says, “When people ask me what a digital textbook is, I say it is a bridge to a powerful new way to learn, a phenomenon that may be as significant as the invention of the printing press.”

I think it will be even more so. The printing press allowed for the scalable distribution of existing texts. When it is mature, online education will increase global access to education every bit as much as it took the printing press hundreds of years to do. But it will also do something the printing press, for all its revolutionary importance, did not do. Online education has the chance to vastly improve the content it distributes via extreme personalization.

This is what Knewton does. We work with publishers and schools to make their content hyper-adaptive. Knewton-powered content continuously adapts to each student all the way down to the concept level, dynamically assembling the perfect bundle of content for each student each day. Later this year, the system will start adapting around not just what you know, but how you learn it best. Learn math best between 8:14-10:22 am? We’ll know that. Improve your reading skills best in 22 minute bite sizes? We’ll know that too. Learn cell division best with video clips instead of text? Yep, we’ll know that. Sometime in the future, we could even produce a little food diary app that allows you to tell us what you ate that day. By the end of the semester, we would be able to tell you what you should have had for lunch to learn the greatest number of concepts at the greatest long-term proficiency.

The ongoing transition to digital textbooks won’t be easy. There are a number of barriers to adoption, some — like lack of access to broadband and digital devices — notably pervasive. But it’s certainly worth the effort. The FCC and Department of Education are doing an admirable job of spearheading this plan, both by bringing together stakeholders from across the digital ecosystem for meetings like today’s, as well as overseeing initiatives like the Digital Textbook Playbook, a roadmap to help teachers, administrators, and others tackle some of the particularly pervasive barriers to adoption. Here at Knewton, we look forward to doing our part to help advance these initiatives and ensure that students have access to the most effective learning materials available.

As Chairman of the FCC Julius Genachowski said on Digital Learning Day this year, “When we talk about transitioning to digital textbooks… we’re talking about students having interactive learning devices that can offer lessons personalized to their learning style and level, and enable real-time feedback to parents, teachers, or tutors.”

That’s music to Knewton’s ears, and we applaud the FCC and Department of Education for their strong leadership toward a next generation U.S. education system that again leads the world both in terms of access and quality.

To learn more about today’s meeting, including a live webcast at 1:30 EST, read the FCC advisory.