School District Dumps $2 Million 'Online Textbook' Program After Discovering Some Students Can't Afford Broadband

from the 'you-must-have-the-latest-version-of-flash-installed-before-learning...' dept

The Digital Reader recently posted an article detailing a Virginia school district's problems with digital textbooks. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is making the switch back to paper textbooks, to the tune of $2 million, after running into system requirements that prevented some of its students from taking advantage of the digital books.

According to the Washington Post (and confirmed on an official website) Fairfax County Public Schools is currently in the process of replacing some recently licensed math textbooks with even newer paper copies.

FCPS has always been at the forefront of adopting new tech in classrooms, whether it is setting up 1:1 classrooms or pushing for greater participation in BYOD programs, and this school year they decided to go into digital textbooks in a big way. FCPS signed up 3 publishers, Pearson, Holt, and McGraw/Hill to provide online math textbooks for all students in all grades, K-12.

That’s an ambitious project, no? It would save students the effort of carrying the textbooks around while avoiding the need for expensive hardware like the iPad. I mean, almost everyone has a computer with internet access at home right?

Well, no, they don’t. And even for the ones that do have access, it turns out that is not enough.

The underlying problem here isn't an ill-timed leap into the digital world. It's the limits built into the e-textbooks by the publishers. In fact, FCPS's FAQ on the digital textbooks calls them what they really are: “online textbooks.” Even if schools could purchase cheaper e-readers for students lacking access to broadband or a computer, the publishers are, at this point, unwilling to provide a downloadable option. In fact, the textbook publishers are constantly adding additional bells and whistles to their “online textbooks” (note the long list of additional software needed to use the curriculum) in order to avoid ever having to provide a stripped-down, downloadable version. Here are the system requirements for the “online textbooks” used by FCPS [PDF]:

Now, the requirements for schools are understandable, what with several simultaneous connections being the norm, but why should a textbook require an internet connection at home? Shouldn't that be optional? Even if homework is assigned that needed to be completed using the textbook, it should at least be able to store work locally and upload it once it has a solid connection. But it doesn't, and here's why: despite all the money being spent on these e-textbooks, at no time does the student ever have an actual local copy of the textbook. Instead, for all the money being spent, the students are in possession of nothing more than a license and a portal — useless without a broadband connection, and impossible to move to a cheaper platform, like an e-reader.

So, the issue here isn't so much that FCPS made the mistake moving forward with digital textbooks, leaving some students out in the cold, but that Pearson and other publishers are unwilling to relinquish complete control of their digital offerings. This is what's keeping the situation from being more equitable. Offline options would remove the broadband requirement, and offering downloadable versions for e-readers would eliminate a large part of the technology gap. Hoffelder's underlying point that “education is supposed to be the great equalizer” is true, but the publishers' “online textbooks” are doing more to keep this gap from closing than this school district's pursuit of the next, newest thing.

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Comments on “School District Dumps $2 Million 'Online Textbook' Program After Discovering Some Students Can't Afford Broadband”

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Capt ICE Enforcer says:

IP must be protected

I can understand why the publishers don’t want to release control. Just imagine if a version of the book escaped into the wild internet. Any average Joe could download it and steal their intellectual property to learn math. If that happened their business would be ruined. We must stop this from happening. We must stop people from learning math thru theft.

Designerfx (profile) says:

Re: IP must be protected

The sad thing is, I can imagine that pearson, among all others, thinks exactly this way.

Pearson is the worst dinosaur of a company when it comes to online anything. Not only that, but they put little to no effort into their online classes, which basically use an iframe to display the entire book which you buy, as a pdf. Supplemental materials = an easy way for teachers to give people busywork. There’s no actual value. Oh, and did I mention it requires you install quicktime and use firefox/IE, but their javascript will check to make sure you’re not using chrome? Yep. They’re that bad.

Never again will I ever take a class if it’s online and includes pearson.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re: IP must be protected

Textbook publishers are some of the worst kinds of parasites in higher education. Their offerings exist in a world all their own and don’t integrate well will other systems, like what a school might use for their online classes. But it’s also a problem with schools not hiring more fulltime instructors so that they have enough time to create their own material and not open-sourcing that material so other instructors can use it too and build on it and thus not externalizing the cost of material development by making students pay for materials instead. The textbook publishers are just the drug dealers offering instructors an easy way of of their troubles and the students end up paying for it, literally and figuratively.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: IP must be protected

my spousal unit is a teacher, and this kind of crap happens ALL THE TIME, only it is with ‘real’ books, too ! ! !

they end up buying ‘new’ books virtually EVERY year because the ‘old’ ones are ‘outdated’ (meaning they have moved some chapters around, and rearranged stuff so that the old exercise books are no longer applicable)…


not only that, they are not ALLOWED to use ‘old’ books, EVEN IF THEY ARE OKAY FOR THEIR purposes… oh, and do i mention the warehouses full of crap that gets bought but never distributed ? ? ?

ANOTHER ‘legalized’ -yet immoral- scam to fleece the powerless…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Jason says:

Re: IP must be protected

If your business model requires you to pass up a $2 MILLION dollar sale in order to depend more heavily on copyright enforcement to keep you in business…

…wait, horry crap, these people are being trusted to educate the children??

This is EXACTLY the kind of shit that’s going to lead space aliens to decide to invade and destroy us and take over our planet–out of sheer compassion.

Josef Anvil (profile) says:

Re: IP must be protected - Lessons learned

When I was in elementary school (10 yrs old), I stole (yes stole) a dictionary.

Years later when I graduated from High School, I went back to my elementary school to apologize to the school librarian. When I told him that I and another student had stolen dictionaries (yeah I ratted out my bro), the librarian told me that he knew we had stolen the dictionaries. I was puzzled as to why he didn’t say anything, so I asked why. He said that we were stealing dictionaries and there was only one reason a child would do that, to use it. He said it was hard enough to get children to use the dictionaries while in the school, so there was no way he was going to stop children from using them at home.

Teaching job well done.

The point of the story is that publishers’ goals go against the goals of the teachers. The whole point of education is to share as much knowledge as possible. Publishers seem to be pushing for a complete shift to free online lessons like at khan academy.

Anonymous Coward says:


A typical charge more and deliver less approach of the publishers. Also this ensures that an annual charge can be made, no using the same set of textbooks for several years.
Also if the publisher gets in financial difficulties they have a huge lever over the schools and government, bail us out or the textbooks disappear mid way th

FarSide (profile) says:

Re: Profits

These points are all true; that they seem so obvious to me is the part that is frightening!

There was an outage on the text-book’s servers. No school today kids!

The other scary part is that the text-book companies have been dinosaurs for 50 years already. I can’t see any story like this without thinking of Richard Feynman

Not exactly the same situation, but I’m sure some equally shady practices go on to this day concerning how books or systems are put in place.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re: Profits

Yeah, those things still happen. I used to work in a department I was in college. We had to keep the publisher reps out. They’d sneak in and try to act like they’re staff to get past the front desk. “Oh, I just wanted to stop in and say hi to Joe.” And they’d buy the department pizzas for lunch randomly. They’d chat up the staff to try to get a friend on the inside. They’d drop off book samples for instructors and claim that the instructors had asked for them. Then the instructor would say they didn’t ask for it and wasn’t even looking for new material. The supplemental material is the big selling point though. Instructors don’t just choose a book, but also homework problems, quizzes, guides, online videos, tutoring material, etc. so they don’t have to do anything to prepare for their class.

DCX2 says:

Re: Re: Re: Profits

The reason professors choose all the quizzes etc is because they’re too busy trying to write papers. Most universities are “publish or perish” until you get tenure (and sometimes even after that).

I had a prof. The guy was excellent. I saw his lecture notes once, and any time he saw students struggling with a concept, he’d annotate his lecture notes for the next year. The man actually cared about teaching his students.

Unfortunately for him, the university let him go because he didn’t publish anything – because he was too busy trying to do his job as a professor. A damn shame, really, and the reason why I shred every single request piece of Alumni mail that comes from them.

Pixelation says:

“Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is making the switch back to paper textbooks, to the tune of $2 million”

It’s hard not to view the current publishers as leeches.

Why not simply pay for internet connections for students who can’t afford it? Sure would be cheaper.

This is a step in the right direction…

It’s hard not to view the current publishers as leeches.

Anonymous Coward says:

You gotta love stupidity. Complain about anything that gives equal access to information to everyone and that gives people the same opportunity to better themselves. Then complain about people claiming benefits because they cannot get a job as they do not have the same qualifications because they could not afford a decent education and could not access the information needed to get that education.

Rabid right wingers crack me up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Here's a solution...

Or if you are a school district with a federal budget to buy in bulk, you can probably pick up a bunch of them for a lot less. Besides, a lot of schools are already providing laptops for all of their students to use during the school year and their are Kindle and Nook apps for those that are free. Then of course there’s always the Adobe Reader that is free. I don’t think the hardware is an issue. It’s strictly the greed of the content providers that is standing in the way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Here's a solution...

I think that’s going a bit far into tinfoil hat territory. Why the hell would you trust sending your kids to a school if you thought the officials would even consider such a thing? Besides, a small piece of electrical tape (or even the power button when changing clothes) solves that problem if you are at all concerned about that.

McCrea (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Here's a solution...

That’s already happened so I wouldn’t call it tinfoil hat territory.

And your point is correct, although your aim missed. People did trust the schools, and only in hindsight realize they shouldn’t have. The point of being able to ‘fix’ the problem with tape does not coincide with your point of trusting the school.

Cauthon75 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Here's a solution...

There has already been an incident where the school people were using the laptop’s camera to spy on the kids. Somebody said they wanted to be able to do that to try to find one if it disappeared, but there was some allegation that they were using it without any good excuse.
“Why the hell would you trust sending your kids to a school if you thought the officials would even consider such a thing?” We send our kids to school because the government will take them away from us if we don’t, and send them to live with the Jukes’s and the Kallikaks. And we send them to the school that they are assigned to, because there is no school choice. And I agree that the chances are very slim that my school will have people like that with access to the computers, but we should not assume things will be OK when we have no way to know until afterwards. I like your idea of disabling the camera, although it’s too bad we have to even think about that.

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

Seems doable

“useless without a broadband connection, and impossible to move to a cheaper platform, like an e-reader.”

Hmmm… I dunno about that. I bet you could set up a scraper that would get at least the text on screen into another format. You might even be about to use your license to make an automated routine that queries for pages you’ll need in the near future. Doesn’t really seem all that different than the fair use ripping of a cd to format-shift the…


McCrea (profile) says:

Re: Seems doable

In fact, the textbook publishers are constantly adding additional bells and whistles to their “online textbooks” (note the long list of additional software needed to use the curriculum) in order to avoid ever having to provide a stripped-down, downloadable version.

The point mentioned in this article is that they are intent on adding more features than just text. Perhaps now the ‘textbook’ can automatically flag those student who didn’t do their homework online.

“getting at least the text” is not a solution.

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Seems doable

Yeah, you’re right, I’m not suggesting real solutions to this problem; I used it as a springboard to get back to the “War on Computing” theme I liked so much last week. But I don’t think it’s all that absurd an example of the basic problem-solving I’d try if I was the parent of a child who brought home such a “broken” reference material.

As far as “added features” I think that’s great, let that be their toehold against piracy. “You’d see an awesome diagram of the Endocrine system here if you opened the chapter from our website!” But I don’t think it’s much of an excuse for not providing a less fancy off-line version of the text and questions for kids to use at home. DRM and piracy paranoia harming paying users and hindering the uptake of new tools. That’s a theme I’d love to see a lot less of.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Serial modem

There might be a way, if you can find an ISP that allows it. Just use two modems and two phone lines. All a student would need to have is a second phone line in the home, and a second modem conneted to the computer. The computer would use both phone lines, and both modems to doubtle the connection speed to about 100K.

The district should find out if 100K is enough for the textbooks to work.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sounds like a new Kickstarter program to me

To create a digital publishing non-profit organization, to recruit young writers and other students from universities to contribute to a knowledge base collective that provides content for lower level publicly funded schools in the form of digital downloads for DRM-free text books.

Anonymous Coward says:

Look at those additional requirements!

Shockwave? SHOCKWAVE?! You’ve got to be kidding… oh my gosh. QuickTime. I can’t believe it. QuickTime. For cryin’ out loud, this is 2013, not 1993!
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind: those were made requirements for the sole purpose of keeping unwanted people out. There’s probably a few diehards out there still doing things with Shockwave, but NOBODY uses QuickTime anymore.

jtc242 (profile) says:

My child goes to a FCPS and I am glad that they are going back to paper. Never mind the broadband issues, some homes don’t have computers. How this escaped them is beyond me seeing as they have programs that provide money for field trips for those that can’t afford it. I rather doubt families in this position are spending hard earned dollars on computers.

The other issue I had with this system is that parents can either be naive, incapable, or aren’t involved enough to provide a locked down computer. If you think putting a child in front of a broadband connected computer without supervision is a productive use of their time, then your child is very disciplined.

jtc242 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I forgot to mention, I am in favor of providing e-readers. I would think that some publisher would be able to make more money by giving out cheap e-readers instead of a physical books and then charge a licensing fee. This would allow them to keep control of the content while allow our kids to have safe/easy access.

Sean says:

The one thing missing from this discussion so far is evidence about what the actual online textbook looks like and whether it actually has any DRM. The links referred to in the main article don’t help with this, unfortunately.

Following the web trail from the links, there is a video for at least one online maths ‘textbook’ from this school board at It gives a feel for what the school board use their online teaching system for.

From this, you’ll see that what the school board calls an online textbook is really a module of material within Blackboard, which is a very popular Virtual Learning Environment. The video explains how to log on to Blackboard and even shows the URL with the name ‘blackboard’ in it (slide 2, at about 28 seconds).

A VLE isn’t just about presenting material in a different format to a book; it’s a way of attempting to replicate some significant parts of the whole teaching experience – feedback, demonstrations, interactivity etc. If you want to see what a ‘textbook’ in this system is intended to do, have a look at slide 3 of the video. Going by these, it’s certainly not intended to do anything static.

With a VLE there are also areas for student communication with staff, staff feedback to students, areas for students to submit assignments and to get grades, and a host of other features. You can even check whether students are engaging with a class by how often they’ve logged on and which pages of material they’ve accessed – this can help diagnose where students have problems. I assume that’s one of the reasons for embedding this particular teaching material within Blackboard.

As such it would require a full client-server system. That isn’t something you can strip the DRM from and download to an e-reader!

Stan171 says:

Very easy to implement a timed license

10 years ago a company I worked for, itrezzo, built a licensing system that allowed the company to have our software behind their firewall and a specific number of seats. The software license would expire after a year, open which it could be renewed. The IT Manager would assign seats or licenses to individuals. Why can’t schools do the same with their content?

Simba7 (profile) says:

Wireless Sync?

Why can’t they do a wireless sync at school with a time limit on the content?

Not that hard, people. Just get near the school so the device can pick up the WiFi signal and have it update itself with the new information.

If you’re scared if the content might leak out to the Internet, utilize the TPM chip inside some computers to secure the information to that particular system.

..and if it’s a digital textbook and you are attending school, it should update itself without issues. I know most tablets and e-readers have digital serial numbers built into the hardware and/or software. Just have the encryption certificates expire every Monday (or whenever) and renew.

People are making this more complicated than it has to be.

Stan171 says:

Very easy to implement a timed license

10 years ago a company I worked for, itrezzo, built a licensing system that allowed the company to have our software behind their firewall and a specific number of seats. The software license would expire after a year, open which it could be renewed. The IT Manager would assign seats or licenses to individuals. Why can’t schools do the same with their content?

Tim Spalding (user link) says:

Don't blame publishers, blame textbooks

I used to design etextbooks?for Houghton Mifflin?so I can say: Don’t blame the publishers. They’re just following the no-doubt 200-page RFP put out by the school system. That’s how the business works, simply; they designed the broken product the school system asked for. The RFP no doubt includes a million idiotic requirements. That it doesn’t include offline access isn’t the publisher’s fault. If the school system had wanted that, they would have built it. They’re happy to build expensive things.

The real problem here is that adding e- to textbooks just adds dazzle and complexity to an already broken model?a learning model, a development model and a purchasing model. They are solutions in search of a rich problem.

If I had my druthers, schools would ditch these programs altogether. Good teachers don’t need textbooks. Of course, you need to hire good teachers first, and that takes money?more money, even, than the bullshit e-textbooks.

C P says:

Limitations of digital textbooks

Digital textbooks?… Really?
There’s a reason why countries like Singapore, Japan, South Korea, China stay at the top for math/science as well as many other academics. They use physical textbooks, and succeed with them. Why? Because humans brains are made to be visual learners, and when you can circle, box, highlight, and notate in your physical copies, that multiplies your ability to retain and remember so much more information. Online textbook format, then, can be helpful as a supplement, not as a replacement.
I am simply glad to hear that textbooks are coming back.

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