Huntsville schools’ switch to digital textbooks to double cost of traditional

education student

According to research done by north Alabama education blogger Russell Winn and a Huntsville City School student’s parent Sarah Threlkeld, the system’s recent switch to digital versions of textbooks appears to have cost more than twice as much as it would have to continue using physical copies.

As detailed in emails to Ms. Threlkeld from HCS Board Member Elisa Ferrell, the Huntsville City School Board claimed it would save the system money to conduct a “digital 1:1” switch.

The current state funded budget for textbooks was raised in 2015 to $52.71/student a year, significantly higher than in recent years, but still low enough to cause local school systems to make up the difference. Local school systems are given the opportunity to determine the type of curriculum they wish to use, as long as it conforms to the state’s version of Common Core, the Alabama College and Career Readiness Standards.

On the front end, Winn found, it does appear that digital copies of textbooks are slightly less expensive than physical copies.

To license the books from Pearson Digital it breaks down to approximately $3.13 million per year, which saves a few hundred thousand dollars compared to the $3.35 million per year it would cost to continue using physical texts.

But licensing for digital textbooks is only the first part of the expense.

Winn writes:

The Pearson digital curriculum is useless without a computer to view the curriculum on, isn’t it?

It took quite a while to get it (the contract was signed 6/18/2012, but it wasn’t publicly available until December 2012 for some reason), but the actual cost of the HP computers that the district distributed in 2012 was $10,624,000 for three years. That did not include the cost of distributions or repairs. I don’t have accurate numbers for those costs, but they were substantial. If we take the Lenovo contract as a baseline for repair costs, it’s fair to estimate that they were at least in the range of $2 million, but since I do not have an accurate estimate of those expenses, I’ll not include them here.

The cost of the HP computers to view the Pearson digital curriculum was $3.5 million a year for three years.

That means the cost of the digital transition jumped from $18,760,902.90 to $29,384,902.90. Thus, we are already exceeding Ferrell’s ever increasing cost for the printed textbooks by nearly $6 million.

In 2015 the school system also updated their 3-year-old computers from HP to Lenovo, in a contract costing $16,366,000 for three years. Winn was unable to procure the system’s contract with Apple for the purchase of 5,060 iPads in 2012, but estimates they cost an additional $2,018,940, or $336,490 for each year they will be used.

Summing it all up, Winn found the systems switch to digital texts cost more than twice what it would have to continue using physical textbooks.

Pearson Curriculum: $18,760,902.90 for 6 years or $3,126,817.15 per year.

HP Computers: $10,624,000.00 for 3 years or $3,541,333.33 per year.

Lenovo Computers: $16,366,000.00 for 3 years or $5,455,333.33 per year

iPads: $2,018,940.00 for 6 years or $336,490.00 per year.

Total Digital Curriculum Costs: $47,769,842.90 or $7,961,640.48 per year.

While Ferrell has yet to return Alabama Today’s request for comment, she did offer some hint into the ways the benefits may outweigh the costs of this transition in her emails to Threlkled.

Curriculum was becoming digitized and we found that it we did a system wide curriculum digital 1:1 transition rather than purchasing hard copy text books, that the financial impact would be less, all our students would have equitable access to the same curriculum, HCS would be able to move towards individualized learning for each student, and we would catapult our students into the digital age that they will be living in as adults.

As an aside, one of the most frequent comments we receive from our graduated seniors after the first year of digital 1:1 was that they found they were more prepared for the college transition, with its digital texts and digital homework and test submissions, than their peers were. As a result they were more successful.

As school systems seek to balance a transition into a new, digitally-led, era of education with the budgeting realities of the state, the tradeoffs are becoming more apparent.

This story may be updated as more information becomes available


  1. Funny, how liberals suddenly become conservatives and worry about fiscal issues when it suits their agenda.
    Odd, too, that liberals would rather have their children educated using a system of hard-copy books that are typically updated on a 7-year cycle. Personally, I applaud the efforts of a school system that tries to bring in current technologies into the classroom. Our children are comfortable with digital information, but because their parents aren’t they are subjected to parental whining over something meant to enhance.

  2. It’s like saying a new car is found to be many times the cost of traditional bicycles. The benefits of a computer (if used properly) with Internet, video, interactive media, etc. are an apples to oranges comparison to books

Comments are closed.