Background of the Issue

Printed books versus ebooks
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Summary of reader attitudes towards print books and e-books.
Source: Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Reading Habits Survey, "The Rise of E-Reading,", Apr. 4, 2012
Textbook publishing in the United States is an $11 billion industry, with five companies - Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, and Scholastic - capturing about 80% of this market. [53][54] Tablets are an $18 billion industry with 53% of US adults, 81% of US children aged eight to 17, and 42% of US children aged under eight, owning a tablet. [55][56][57][58] As tablets have become more prevalent, a new debate has formed over whether K-12 school districts should switch from print textbooks to digital textbooks on tablets and e-readers.

Proponents of tablets say that they are supported by most teachers and students, are much lighter than print textbooks, and improve standardized test scores. They say that tablets can hold hundreds of textbooks, save the environment by lowering the amount of printing, increase student interactivity and creativity, and that digital textbooks are cheaper than print textbooks.

Opponents of tablets say that they are expensive, too distracting for students, easy to break, and costly/time-consuming to fix. They say that tablets contribute to eyestrain, headaches, and blurred vision, increase the excuses available for students not doing their homework, require costly Wi-Fi networks, and become quickly outdated as new technologies are released.

2012 marked the first time that more people accessed the Internet via smartphones and tablets than desktop or laptop computers. [37] Approximately 163 million tablets were shipped worldwide in 2017. [60] A joint report by McKinsey and the GSMA predicts the mobile education market could be worth $70 billion globally by 2020, and predicts demand for mobile education devices, like smartphones and tablets, may be worth another $32 billion by the same time frame. [38]

Students using tablets in the classroom
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Students using tablets in the classroom.
Source: Voranai Vanijaka and Lamphai Intathep, "Tablet Tryout at Rachawinit School,", Mar. 12, 2012
26% of Americans read e-books in 2018, up from 21% in 2012. [59][61] Among children age six to 17, the percentage of those who have read an e-book has increased from 25% in 2010 to 61% in 2015. [82] In 2017, 45% of children aged six to 17 said they preferred print books to e-books, while 16% preferred e-books; 38% said they had no preference. [83]

In 2010, Amazon announced e-books were outselling paper books, and in 2012, e-book revenue exceeded that of hardcover books for the first time ever. [33] As of Feb. 2017, 83% of e-books sold in the US were purchased on Amazon, at a rate of over one million downloads a day. [63][62] 487,298,000 e-books were sold in the US between Feb. 2016 and Feb. 2017, making up 42% of all book sales. [63]

In 2014, about 90% of all textbooks used in higher education were available as e-books through Vital Source; by 2018, the service offered over 20 million digital textbooks from over 1,000 publishers for higher education and grades K-12. [64] [65] [67]

Drawing of a child carrying an overstuffed backpack.
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Drawing of a child carrying an overstuffed backpack.
Source: Back to Life Chiropractic, "Is a Heavy Backpack Weighing Down Your Child?,", Aug. 16, 2012
Federal Initiatives in Education Technology
In Nov. 2010, the US Department of Education released its National Education Technology Plan, a detailed blueprint on how schools can improve learning with technology. Among its recommendations is to leverage mobile devices (the technology students already have) in the classroom. [113]

On Feb. 1, 2012, the US Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in collaboration with several tech organizations, released a downloadable "Digital Textbook Playbook" to "encourage collaboration, accelerate the development of digital textbooks and improve the quality and penetration of digital learning in K-12 public education." [6]

In 2013, President Obama tasked the FCC with spearheading a five-year project that aimed to provide all schools and libraries with access to high-speed broadband connections in order to facilitate improvements in digital learning. [73] Launching the ConnectEd program, President Obama noted that, "[w]e are living in a digital age, and to help our students get ahead, we must make sure they have access to cutting-edge technology." [73]

The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 created a grant program which authorizes up to $1.6 billion annually for school districts to support digital learning. [69] Schools can use grant money to fund a variety of activities such as teacher-training programs on the effective use of digital technologies in the classroom, provide resources to students in under-served communities, and fund blended-learning projects taught partly online and partly in the classroom. [69]

State Initiatives in Education Technology
State initiatives regarding digital learning in K-12 education vary. According to the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), some states "require the implementation of digital instructional materials" in K-12 schools while others "allow the implementation of digital instructional materials." [90][91] Several states have dedicated state funding for digital instructional materials and devices. [90] More than 10 states have guidance for school districts on how they can use digital learning in place of school attendance when closures are necessary due to bad weather. [90]

According to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), "integration of technology into the classroom is widespread and necessary, but some states have done a more efficient and effective job utilizing new technology than others." [89] Utah and Florida are the only two states rated in the "A" range for digital learning by ALEC in their 2017 Report Card on American Education, while five states, Connecticut, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Tennessee, are rated F. [89]

A number of states operate virtual schools that provide students, especially those living in rural areas, with the opportunity to take classes that are not offered in their local schools. [86] A number of these state-run virtual schools also offer professional development training for teachers alongside support with digital learning resources. [86] Operating since the early 2000s, by 2016, 24 states had state-run virtual schools. [87][86] Traditionally serving high school students in grades 9-12, virtual schools have expanded their offerings with some now offering courses from kindergarten through grade 12. [88]

Internet Access and Tablet Use in K-12 Schools
The percentage of K-12 classrooms with any type of internet access increased from 51% in 1998 to 98% in 2012. [17] By 2018, 98% of K-12 school districts covering 81,000 schools and 44.7 million students had high-speed broadband connectivity compared to 30% of K-12 school districts in 2013. [72]

K-12 schools spend $5.8 billion annually on printed instructional materials and $2.5 billion on digital resources. [68] Many districts, schools, and states have begun transitioning their instructional materials from paper textbooks to digital learning environments, with 75% of K-12 teachers believing that printed textbooks will be completely replaced by digital content by 2026. [70] The Center for Digital Education reports that, during the 2017-2018 school year, 82% of K-12 school districts surveyed used digital textbooks. [85]

In 2016, 42% of K-12 teachers said that they used at least one digital device in class every day. [70] The most popular devices used in classrooms in a typical week are: laptops (used by 56% of teachers), desktop computers (54%), tablets (51%), and interactive whiteboards (45%). [70]

One-to-one computing initiatives, where each student has their own laptop, tablet, or other mobile device, are gaining popularity with 40% of K-12 students participating in such programs. [71] 18% of students get two devices. [71]

Despite the proliferation of digital learning, only about 28% of K-12 schools worldwide offered formal digital citizenship programs designed to teach students appropriate and responsible use of internet-enabled devices in 2017. [81]

A survey by Deloitte found that 90% of children use digital learning materials or devices outside of school, with two-thirds starting by age five. [70] Research by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation found that 96.5% of high school students across the country said they needed to use the internet for class assignments outside of school, and nearly half reported there had been times they were unable to complete their homework due to lack of access to the internet or a computer. [75][114]

Opinions on Tablets and Textbooks
In a 2017 global survey of K-12 teachers in 89 countries by Schoology, 95% of teachers responded positively in response to the question "in your opinion, does digital or blended learning positively impact student growth or achievement?" with 52% saying "very much" and 43% saying "somewhat." [81]

A 2016 survey by Deloitte found that 88% of parents of K-12 students, 84% of K-12 teachers, and 75% of K-12 students, are "very or somewhat interested in having more at-home digital content available to supplement what's being taught in school." [70] 73% of students said they would spend more time learning over the summer if digital learning resources were made available to them. [70]

A 2015 survey of K-12 school- or district-based administrators by ASCD and OverDrive found that 99% of respondents "saw at least one benefit in using digital content over print in the classroom" with 76% saying that it allows teachers "to deliver individualized instruction" and 63% saying that it "captures greater student attention/engagement." [84] Survey respondents also had concerns about switching to digital content with 60% of public school administrators and 30% of private school administrators worried about unequal access to the internet at home. [84]