April 22, 2017

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New York DOE Green Lights Amazon eBook Deal

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That new book smell may soon be a thing of the past for New York City’s schoolchildren. A $30 million contract between the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and retailer Amazon will reshape the way ebooks are used in the nation’s largest school system starting with the 2016-2017 school year.

The three-year deal will allow public school educators in the city’s 1,800 K–12 schools to access both trade and textbooks in an ebook format through Amazon, creating a digital marketplace where printed matter can be purchased as well. Students and teachers will be able to read the texts from multiple devices including PC and Mac computers, smartphones, tablets, and Smart boards. Announced last fall, the deal had been placed on hold following a letter from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) questioning the suitability of Amazon’s e-publishing format for blind and print-disabled students. At the time, DOE believed a new proposal would be on the table before the close of 2015.

The deal finally got approval after NFB signed a “memorandum of understanding,” with Amazon the month before, says Chris Danielson, NFB’s director of communications. The agreement? That Amazon would commit to a process improving their accessibility—and agree to meet with NFB on a quarterly basis to continue the dialogue of what needs to be improved. Amazon also “…committed that when you pull up a book, you can immediately see whether it’s optimized for accessibility,” says Danielson.

Additionally, students who need a book that is not in a format that they can access can contact Amazon, which has said it will “resolve the issue,” Danielson says. If not, NFB will step in to refer students and teachers to other options, he adds.

Ebook use has a firm toehold in the K–12 space, with school librarians spending on average $1,014 each in the 2014-2015 school year. Twenty one percent say they plan to spend more this year. As ebooks and other digital tools make their way into classrooms, Danielson says organizations including NFB have remained vigilant to make sure all students’ needs are addressed. Yet while strides have been made in the K–12 space, technology use in the higher education area is still a matter of concern.

“There are so many platforms being used [at colleges and universities], he says. “There’s a bit less of an understanding of accessible technology, what that actually means, and how to ensure it.”

DOE has agreed to spend an estimated $4.3 million the first year with Amazon, another $8.6 million the second year, and $17.2 million the final year, which is what DOE estimates is the annual cost for the program when fully scaled. There is also the option for a two-year, $34.5 million extension. To DOE, the contract, long in the making, is one the school system believes will now serve the needs of all its students and educators.

“We’ve listened closely to teachers and principals, and they’ll be able to use the e-books and e-content on the new marketplace to better serve their students,” says DOE spokesperson Devora Kaye by email. “We are also pleased that the DOE was able to bring Amazon and the National Federation of the Blind together for an agreement that will improve e-book accessibility for the blind and visually impaired community nationwide.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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