FCC Pushes E-Textbooks on U.S. Schools Facing Budget Crunch

A Federal Communications Commission effort to bring digital textbooks to U.S. students faces resistance from schools with limited budgets for buying devices such as Apple Inc.’s iPad tablet computer.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced plans yesterday to get all U.S. students from kindergarten through the 12th grade using electronic titles within five years. The initiative, which doesn’t involve any additional U.S. government funding, is meant to speed adoption of e-textbooks. The U.S. spends $7 billion a year on textbooks, and digital versions are the exception, rather than the rule, Genachowski said.

Textbook publishers including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson Plc and McGraw-Hill Cos. have been making the digital transition and offer a “vast array” of electronic textbooks, while many schools don’t have the devices needed to use them, Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division for the Washington-based Association of American Publishers, said in an interview.

“There are a number of issues at the state and local level where schools are cash-strapped and don’t have enough money to spend on hardware,” including tablet computers, said Diskey, whose organization represents publishing companies including textbook manufacturers.

Genachowski and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan released guidelines yesterday for schools to transition to digital textbooks. They plan to convene a meeting next month of chief executive officers of technology, wireless and publishing companies to spur growth in the e-textbook market. Apple, Microsoft Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. will be among those invited, Neil Grace, an FCC spokesman, said.

Apple’s Service

Apple last month introduced a service to make digital versions of textbooks available on the iPad and beef up the education content for the tablet computer as it gains popularity in classrooms.

The service, called iBooks 2, will help make textbooks more interactive with videos, animations and search features, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of product marketing, said at a Jan. 19 event in New York. More than 1.5 million iPads are being used for educational purposes, he said.

Apple couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the FCC’s e-textbook initiative.

Electronic readers would let students avoid carrying backpacks filled with 50 pounds of out-of-date textbooks, and offer educational advantages, Genachowski said in prepared remarks at an event yesterday in Washington.

“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,” he said.

Funding Challenges

Many school districts grappling with lower tax revenue have dismissed teachers and staff and put off building projects, and may not have funding for digital devices, said Kitty Porterfield, spokeswoman for the Alexandria, Virginia-based American Association of School Administrators.

“There are lots of schools across the country for whom this is going to be a long, difficult and expensive journey,” Porterfield said by phone. “Everybody sees the future coming. I don’t think that’s the issue, but financing is a problem.”

The FCC provides more than $2.25 billion annually to connect U.S. schools and libraries to high-speed Internet service through its E-Rate program, Grace said in an e-mail. The program includes a pilot for supporting wireless connectivity for mobile learning devices, he said.

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