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Speak OUT: When will school districts be ready for digital textbooks?

School leaders say it will happen, but not so soon. 

Winter 2002

“We must forge a partnership between the school districts and the publishing industry,”
says William Habermehl, superintendent of the Orange County Department of Education in California. “The publishers need to produce quality materials because they see that the education community is ready to use them. And by ready, I mean that we have to have teachers highly trained in the use of digital material. In California, we have many teachers who are doing an incredible job using whiteboards and projectors, but we don’t have a sufficient mass of teachers across the state ready to dismiss textbooks and take on digital material. It’s going to take training and time to get those teachers ready. The second step is to get students the right equipment, whether that’s Kindles or e-books, small laptop computers or handhelds. Those devices all have very different plusses and minuses, but the kids are much more prepared and ready to use them than the teachers are.

“The publishing industry is ready now to develop incredible stuff. The problem is they say, ‘Are your kids ready?’ and we say, ‘Nope.’ They ask, ‘Do all your kids have computers?’ And we say, ‘Nope.’ So they say, ‘We’re not going to produce it if you can’t use it.’ And I don’t blame them. We need to be able to tell the publishing industry that in, say, 2012, our schools will be ready and our teachers will be trained, so they should build these materials and we’ll use them. And, I’ll tell you, it’ll be the most exciting thing to ever happen to schools.”

“It’s inevitable,”
says Cathy Poplin, deputy associate superintendent for educational technology for the Arizona Department of Education. “If you look at the landscape, it makes sense from many points of view to use digital textbooks: Digital material can be updated and changed more easily and you can even create your own. But are we ready for it? Not until the technology is affordable and worthwhile and in the hands of all our kids.

“I don’t want to say, ‘Plan for the technology first,’ because our educational needs should be what drives the technology. To that end, digital material can be very appealing to kids. Someone once said people of a certain age are paper-trained and kids are digitally trained. I look at my own children. If somebody wants to look up a number, I grab the phone book while they grab their BlackBerrys. You can’t look at a group of kids without noticing that they’ve all got their heads in their cell phones and that they’re communicating and learning in different ways.

“I hope someday we no longer debate the value of technology in the classroom and that it’s just the way it is. That said, books will never go away. Our superintendent, Tom Horne, pushed for money for computers for every student years ago [which was unsuccessful due to budgetary constraints], but he still stresses the value of books and literature. Students need to learn the love of reading books. Technology is augmentation.”

“The technology is available. But schools aren’t ready yet,”
says Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for academic and technology services for Plano Independent School District in Texas. “It’s not that the content isn’t available. It is available, but it’s just not 100 percent available through all publishers. These two factors, accessibility and availability, are constrained by economic realities.

“The third leg of the triangle is community-based content. There are great initiatives going on in the open content area, but there’s still a limit to how comprehensive the availability of open content is. When all three sides of the triangle come together—the content from publishers, the accessibility to students and their families, and community-based content—we’ll be ready to move toward digital content throughout our schools. I’d like to say that for our district, this move will happen in five years, but none of us can predict the economic situation well enough to say when the tipping point will be.

“I applaud the efforts of the pioneering states and the individual school systems that are trying to move forward with digital material because we all learn from their efforts. When the state of Virginia went out with their open content physics textbooks two years ago, we all got a chance to learn from that. When California goes out for their textbooks in an open content fashion, we’ll all get a chance to learn from that. When individual schools make their efforts to go one-to-one, we can all learn from that. This is how we determine what works best to improve student learning and how to implement it.”

“I’m not just looking for a textbook to be online or on a disk,”
says John Roach, superintendent of Carlsbad Unified School District in California. “I’m looking for a video in which an expert is giving the best lesson in the country on how to solve complex equations in algebra. Meaning, I’m looking for something that is either the best tool for our classroom teachers or the best additional resource for the students. When we first started using computers in school, we were limited to taking workbook content and just putting it on the screen. Since then, we’ve grown so much in our ability to put engaging and interactive content on computers. So in terms of digital content, I hope we’re doing more than just scanning the page of a textbook onto an electronic device.

“I don’t see books going away soon. Throughout California, many schools are not buying any new instructional materials. In addition, we have to remember that even in this high-tech 21st century, there are kids who don’t have access to a computer or the Internet in their homes. We need to find a way to give all kids access to digital content. In San Diego, we are working for a community approach to make broadband available to all.
“I’m excited by the opportunities the move toward digital content provides. For example, we don’t have a virtual school in our district, although we talk about it a lot. Greater availability of digital content could help push us into that area. Virtual schools aren’t meant for all kids, but they are an option for some. We in school districts just need to be as flexible as we can—to take what’s available to us and do the best we can with it to reach the most students possible.”

“I expect that paper textbooks will be gone. I truly do,”
says David Steele, chief information and technology officer for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida. “Traditional textbooks are so quickly out of date. The information is constantly changing. It’s easier for publishers to update content in an online textbook than in a traditional one, so that students aren’t reading about the Soviet Union as if it’s a present-day phenomenon. Digital textbooks could also be cost-effective. Although the initial cost to the district is the same or slightly higher, we could offset that cost by eliminating the replacement cost of traditional textbooks.

“Another potential benefit of digital textbooks is mobility. High school students lug around 30 pounds of books. If students can access content on a small device, I think that they will be much more likely to tote their work home at night and back to school the next morning. Some districts supply a set of textbooks for each classroom and issue one book to each student for home use. We’ve never explored that idea because of cost.

“I do think it will be a few more years before we have an affordable device that makes sense for a move to digital content. The right tools have to be in place first, and then it will take time to train teachers. But that’s okay because all good things take time. If you try to plunge into something too fast, you can quickly get into trouble. I’m just glad that we’re headed in that direction.”         

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