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Obama launches e-book initiative: Will kids in need be able to access them?

Several major publishing houses have agreed to make $250 million worth of children's titles available for free for low-income students.

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    President Obama speaks during a visit to Anacostia Library to participate in a live 'virtual field trip' with middle school students in Washington Thursday. REUTERS/
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President Obama announced Thursday that a string of major book publishers have pledged $250 million in donations to help low-income kids access electronic versions of around 10,000 of the most popular titles in children’s literature. The president is also seeking commitment from local schools and governments to ensure that every student has a library card.

"We're going to provide millions of e-books online so that they're available for young people who maybe don't have as many books at home or don't always have access to a full stock of reading materials," Obama said during a virtual town hall sponsored by Discovery Education.

The president announced his plans to provide educational materials to low-income students in the public library of one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods, Anacostia. The White House is touting the initiative as a necessary measure to provide more educational opportunities for kids from low-income families. But some critics have pointed out that the e-readers and other electronic devices necessary for reading e-books may not be readily available for all students.

E-readers are found in nearly half of American homes, according to data released by Pew Research last year. However, they are much less prominent in lower income households. Pew found that only 14 percent of households earning under $30,000 per year have an e-reader.

E-books can be accessed on other devices, such as tablets and personal computers, which can prove a prohibitive offense for lower-income families. A US Census Bureau study of computer and Internet use demonstrated that only 62 percent of households with incomes under $25,000 owned a computer, compared to 88 percent of households nationwide.

Still, White House officials have said that plans are being laid out to ensure that children have access to both the necessary technology and the e-books. Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council, pointed out that computers and smart phones are ubiquitous in both homes and schools. She also added that Apple Inc. has pledged to donate $100 million in iPads, laptops, and software to underprivileged schools, technology that would facilitate the use of e-books.

"It's very different than for our generation," Ms. Munoz told Reuters.

"More and more, you're going to be seeing kids using devices, and what we're doing is making sure that there's more books available on those devices.”

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Moreover, the New York Public Library is developing an app to facilitate access to e-books donated by publishers as well as works that are available in the public domain. The NYPL is also planning to coordinate a network of volunteer librarians to develop a system to match young readers with appropriate titles.

Government officials noted that around 80 percent of low-income students have reading skills below their grade level and do not have books at home. Moreover, children in low-income households are only half as likely as their peers to have a library card. The programs that will be announced on Thursday are necessary to provide equal opportunities for all students, officials say.

“If we’re serious about living up to what our country is about, then we have to consider what we can do to provide opportunities in every community, not just when they’re on the front page, but every day,” National Economic Council director Jeff Zients told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday.

The "ConnectED Library Challenge," which aims to improve education through digital connectivity, has enlisted more than 30 communities "to put a library card into every student's hand so they will have access to the learning resources and books they can read for pleasure, all available in America's libraries,” the White House said.

The ConnectED program also aims to provide 99 percent of all US students with high-speed broadband in their schools and libraries by 2018. The program will draw on $2 billion in private-sector commitments and funding from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for school and library connectivity, which includes $2 billion specifically for Wi-Fi. Thursday’s announcement “brings the total value delivered as part of this five-year transformation in American education to over $10 billion,” the White House said. 

Publishers Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, and HarperCollins, have all agreed to participate in the program.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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