Voice from the Field

The Transition to Digital Content and Textbooks

The Transition to Digital Content and Textbooks

As you no doubt know, we have been working over the past three years to create a space for education technology that is both integrated and expanded. One key to our success is for all of us to share in the articulation of the potential and the challenges of the transition to digital. Embedded in this article are some key messages that we can continue to fine-tune in order to increase understanding and inspire action.

On February 1, Digital Learning Day, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, on a panel with the Chairman of the FCC, Julius Genachowski, called for the transition to digital textbooks over the next five years. The term “digital textbook” does not necessarily inspire innovation, but it does signal an important entrance into mainstream education of the vast array of rapidly improving high-tech content, tools, and resources.

Modern learning technology not only assists teachers in meeting the needs of more students but also engages students across all subjects and grade levels. It inherently supports the people—the teachers and students and leaders—engaged in the complex enterprise of education.

When people ask me what a digital textbook is, I say that 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 that opened the door to universal learning from books.

How will digital learning expand learning opportunities?

First, students and teachers can use some of the same powerful tools professionals use for research, writing, music composition, photography, and documentary filmmaking — tools for creating and analyzing visualizations of mass quantities of data and for communication and collaboration.

Second, the content within this new generation of textbooks can be expanded, enhanced, and personalized in a digital environment. Imagine the textbook that can read aloud, define its words, provide explanations of how to solve problems, and take the student on a virtual tour of the setting of a novel. Imagine it includes maps with perpetually updated videos, stories, data, and information—well organized and accessible for the teacher and the learner. Imagine it contains simulations and models, animations of the stock market, or the earth’s tides, a molecule that students can interact with—turning it around, adding or removing parts to promote deeper conceptual understanding. And this textbook includes links to relevant websites, resources, videos, and personal interests both professionally vetted and personally curated.

These digital learning tools will provide guided feedback that is personalized for the learner, readily adapting to the abilities and needs of each student. They will include cognitive tutors adapting to the progression of the student and complex and engaging games that support problem solving and collaboration, encourage persistence, and maintain motivation.

Third, students can maintain their own personal learning record, with data downloaded from a variety of digital learning environments where they are working. Students armed with this data can locate themselves on the map of learning and plot their own route to a specific learning goal. This personal learning data can also provide parents, mentors, tutors, and others with better information and resources to support their students and move them fluidly through a continuum of skills without the false boundaries of grade levels.

Moreover, technology can be the key to access for many of our students who live in places that do not have a full array of teachers and courses. Students may need to earn extra credits or recover from missed assignments or courses. Online access to courses, experts, and peers for both teachers and students will help level the playing field.

Throughout the country, educators, parents, and policymakers are stepping up the commitment to support every student toward successful completion of each year, thus improving the chance to graduate and be prepared for college and/or career. They are engaging students in experiences that promote persistence and deeper thinking, build confidence, and support learning out of school as well as in school. They are supporting teachers with tools and the data they need to be diagnosticians, the resources to be problem solvers, and the content to assist their students with developing understanding. They are beginning to use technology in more ways that support students’ deep engagement in the task of learning.

At the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas, Secretary Duncan said, “It’s no exaggeration to say that technology is the new platform for learning. Technology isn’t an option that schools may or may not choose for their kids. Technological competency is a requirement for entry into the global economy, and the faster we embrace it, the more we maintain and secure our economic leadership in the 21st century.”

Many members of the EdNET audience are on the brink of designing and developing the learning technologies and resources that will vastly improve our collective ability to meet the learning needs of many more of our students. Likely all of you share in the vision of an education system powered up with technologies both real and imagined. Sharing this vision is critical to our continued success. Thank you for your dedication and expertise!


Karen Cator is the Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. She has devoted her career to creating the best possible learning environments for this generation of students. Prior to joining the department, Cator directed Apple’s leadership and advocacy efforts in education. In this role, she focused on the intersection of education policy and research; emerging technologies; and the reality faced by teachers, students, and administrators.

Cator joined Apple in 1997 from the public education sector, most recently leading technology planning and implementation in Juneau, Alaska. She also served as Special Assistant for Telecommunications for the Lieutenant Governor of Alaska. Cator holds a master’s in school administration from the University of Oregon and a bachelor’s in early childhood education from Springfield College. She is the past chair of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and has served on several boards, including the Software & Information Industry Association—Education. She may be reached at Karen.Cator@ed.gov.