Electronic books, having changed the way many people read for pleasure, are now seeping into schools. Starting this fall, almost all Fairfax middle and high school students began using online books in social studies, jettisoning the tomes that have weighed down backpacks for decades.
It is the Washington area’s most extensive foray into online textbooks, putting Fairfax at the leading edge of a digital movement that publishers and educators say inevitably will sweep schools nationwide.
But questions remain about whether the least-privileged children will have equal access to required texts. Many don’t have computers at home, or reliable Internet service, and the school system is not giving a laptop or e-reader to every student.
“That little unknown piece about the access is the only thing that still kind of makes me a little anxious,” said Karin Williams, director of operations for the system’s instructional services division.
Across the country, electronic textbooks represent less than 10 percent of the textbook market for elementary and secondary schools, said Karen Meaney, an analyst for Simba Information, a market research company. But the share is growing fast. A new Florida law will require schools to spend half of their textbook budgets on digital resources by 2015.
Locally, Loudoun County schools are considering online textbooks. Prince William County officials said they considered online social studies texts last year but decided to wait until prices drop and books improve. Montgomery County officials say they will invest in online textbooks after the school system adapts its curriculum to new national standards.
Fairfax tested digital books in 18 schools last year and decided in July to buy them for core social studies classes for $5.3 million. Officials describe it as the first step toward a profound digital transformation of the Washington region’s largest school system.
A load off wallets, backs
Stevens’s students — their backpacks liberated from a 5.6-pound, 1,052-page brick of a book — say it’s simply a relief.
“You don’t have to take it from home to school and back,” said one ponytailed 12-year-old. If all of her classes went digital, she said, “my arms and back would be happy.”
That vision is not too far off.
The system will adopt new math, language arts and science textbooks over the next few years. Within five years, Assistant Superintendent Peter Noonan predicts, digital will overtake print in county schools, and students will travel to class not with a bulging backpack but with a single laptop — or netbook or tablet — that serves as a portal to textbooks and other digital resources.
“Many of our kids — if not all of our kids — are coming to us as digital natives,” Noonan said. “We should really allow our students to learn the way they live outside of school.”