Can The Obama Administration's Five-Year Plan For Digital Learning Work?

There's a buzz around making learning digital, no doubt spurred by Apple's recent declaration that iBooks 2 is the future of education. Now, the Obama administration has come out in support of digital learning, claiming that all students will be using digital textbooks within five years. But can that really happen?

In an interview with Associated Press, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and FCC chairman Julius Genachowski state that the Obama administration has set a goal for getting digital textbooks in the hands of all students. That time frame is just five years.

This goes hand-in-hand with an FCC manifesto for the future of digital learning called the Digital Textbook Playbook. Tellingly, that document isn't insistent that the iPad is the future of learning. Rather, it suggests the use of smartphones, tablets, and laptops, presumably a way of making use of some existing technology — as well as technology already owned by many students.

Relying on students, however, is an awful idea, especially in deprived areas. There's no denying that a digital learning is a good idea — in fact, research shows that technology-assisted learning can get students learning 30-80 percent faster. But to make it work requires capital investment in hardware and ongoing cash for support. However you look at it, cost is a huge issue.

Currently, the education future suggested by Apple doesn't make economic sense. However, the FCC's Digital Textbook Playbook suggests that the transition will see a savings of about $600 per student per year, owing to reduced copy and paper costs, savings from online assessments, and expected cost reductions from lowered drop-out rates. That's a huge positive.

Capital investment remains a problem, though. If someone can find an affordable way to provide students with a suitable device, then we're home and dry. Until then, this five year plan seems ambitious. [AP and FCC via The Verge; Image: flickingerbrad]