Amazon Ebook Deal With NYC Schools Not Dead Yet

Terms of the pending three-year, $30 million deal between the retail giant and the New York City Department of Education for e-materials are being revised after the National Federation of the Blind said that the technology would not adequately serve blind students.
A ebook contract between Amazon and New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) is not dead yet, according to the DOE. Instead, the plan is being retooled, with a revised agreement—one that takes into account the needs of all students—before the end of 2015. “We look forward to submitting an amended proposal to the Panel for Educational Policy later this fall, said Devora Kaye, a DOE spokesperson, by email. The original contract would have turned online retailer Amazon into an ebook provider for the DOE’s 1,800 K–12 schools—a contract that would have netted Amazon $30 million over three years. But that agreement, which was expected to be approved in late August, was put on hold after the National Federation of the Blind wrote a letter on August 13 to DOE chancellor Carmen Fariña, among others, stating that the publishing format used by Amazon was “wholly unsuitable” for blind and print-disabled students. Ebook publishers use a format called EPUB3, which includes metadata that links with assistive technology, making text, labels, tables, and other information accessible to blind readers. “Unfortunately, Amazon takes ePub3 content and, due to the limitations of its MobiPocket converter, strips the ePub3 files of this rich reading experience, rendering them accessible only to the sighted reader,” Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, stated in the letter. That letter prompted the August 26 meeting to be put on hold, and a reportedly new plan considered. As this pending deal shows, cities are eager to include more education technology into school curricula. Educational IT spending is expected to be nearly $21 billion by the end of 2015, according to the Center for Digital Education. Amazon is pushing hard to get a share of this spending. The digital retailer reportedly inked a deal with Brazil’s Ministry of Education in 2014 for digital textbooks in the country’s public high schools. Amazon also claims that its content management tool, Whispercast, is used by more than half of the largest school districts in the United States, as of April. (Amazon spokespersons did return repeated requests for updates.) As for what a revised agreement with New York City schools might entail, the DOE has made it clear that the details will address the needs of all New York City students—whatever support their learning requires. “We are committed to serving all of our students, and we have decided to postpone the vote on this contract in response to concerns raised by advocates in the blind and visually impaired communities,” Kaye said by email. “We are working closely with Amazon and community partners to ensure that all school communities—including those serving visually impaired students—will be able to take advantage of the ebook and e-content marketplace when it meets their needs.”

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