South Korea, which consistently outperforms the United States when it comes to educational outcomes, is moving far faster than this country in adopting digital learning environments. South Korea has set a goal to go fully digital with its textbooks by 2015.
"This has to be where we go as a country," Duncan said.
The transition to digital involves much more than scanning books and uploading them to computers, tablet devices, or e-readers. Proponents describe a comprehensive shift to immersive, online learning experiences that engage students in a way a textbook never could.
Students studying algebra might click to watch a video clip explaining a new concept or property. If they get stuck, interactive help features could figure out the problem.
Using digital textbooks, schools can save money on hard copies and get updated material to students more quickly. School districts may also be able to pick and choose their curriculum buffet-style. A district might choose one publisher's top-notch chapter on Shakespeare, but follow it with another publisher's section on The Scarlet Letter.
But adopting digital textbooks isn't as easy as a directive from Washington. States set their own processes for selecting and purchasing textbooks that match their needs.
A central tension is what the shift would mean for textbook publishers whose profits rely on replacing old, worn-out textbooks with new ones.