A consultant working for an instructional materials vendor called today to discuss market dynamics around the shift from print to digital.  We discussed eight forces of change:

1. Cheap access devices. When I was a superintendent, laptops were $2500; now you can get a more powerful netbook for a tenth as much

2. Content. While most content is first gen (flat/sequential), we’re beginning to see more second gen (engaging/adaptive).

3. Electronic lives of students.  Kids live in a connected world. Going to school is like stepping on an airplane–all electronic devices off.  Enterprising teachers and administrators are combatting this premise with connected schools.

4. Demand. Kids want more choices than schools can provide.  It’s easy to offer a full array of AP courses by simply opening up the computer lab.

5. Competition. The 30% of virtual learning is hard to ignore. More districts are jumping in and creating their own offerings often partnering with a virtual provider.  New charter school models that blend online and onsite learning give us a picture of the future.

6. Policy. In places like FL, requirements to partner with a virtual provider are driving expanded online offerings. WA Digital Commons encourages adoption of vetted and state sponsored digital content.

7. Budget pressure.  A string of tough budget years have resulted in more states and districts to consider open content in place of textbooks.

8. Facebook. As folks my age begin to retire, they’re replaced by the facebook generation–young teachers that grew up in a digital soup and assume school should operate more like life.

We also discussed a couple barriers to change:

1. Knot. Entwined contracts and policies make changing school staffing, structure, and schedule nearly impossible.  My last blog post featured Rocketship, an elementary charter school with a five period day including a period in a learning lab.  Can you imagine a district reducing staffing to move to a model like this?  It’s nearly impossible to gain staffing productivity in existing schools.

2. Policy. Seat time, credit requirements, textbook adoption cycles, etc. all make it hard to make the shift to digital.

3. School Boards. Textbook adoption is a traditional role of school boards; many of them don’t want to give up the sense of control over instructional materials (even though use is sporadic at best).

Personalized digital learning is coming but given the barriers progress will be lumpy–fast in some places and slow in others.

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


  1. You really hit it on the head!
    I could have screamed when I was told last week that our school was not increasing student computer time by getting a “mobile” lab of laptops for students to use. It seems that the money was spent on new text books.
    Are we going back in time?


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