Online textbooks moving into schools

October 2, 2011

Seventh-grade history teacher Mark Stevens bellowed a set of 21st-century instructions as students streamed into class one recent Friday at Fairfax County’s Glasgow Middle School.

“Get a computer, please! Log on,” he said, “and go to your textbook.”

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.”

The online books are generally cheaper than their hard-copy cousins and look similar, but they’ve been souped up with interactive maps and links to primary sources and History Channel video clips.

Unlike printed books, which the system purchases about every six years, the online versions can be updated regularly to correct errors and reflect current events. Students can take notes in the margins, highlight important ideas and prompt the computer to read passages aloud.

Those are helpful features, Stevens said, but the online books won’t revolutionize teaching by themselves. They’re only textbooks, after all — “just one tool,” he said, “not the magic bullet.”

The books do, however, offer a glimpse of the challenges schools everywhere will face as they aim for a digital future.

There are minor logistical problems, teachers say: Students are apt to forget one of the several login/password combinations they need to get into the online books, and wireless networks are sometimes weighed down by demand for bandwidth.

Working around barriers

More difficult and more important is the uncertainty about whether all students have the access they need to computers outside school.

A survey of the schools that piloted online books last year, including Glasgow, indicated that 8 percent of middle school students and 12 percent of high school students do not have a computer at home.

One of those children is Eliza Salome, 12, a Glasgow seventh-grader who said she has used the public library’s terminals most weekday afternoons since her family’s computer broke two years ago.

On a recent day at the Woodrow Wilson Library in Falls Church, she signed up for a terminal and dived into her homework — several pages of questions about the Reconstruction period after the Civil War that required visiting a particular Web site. She finished more than half of the questions before the library closed at 6 p.m.

Eliza said she doesn’t mind depending on the library to do homework. When she can’t finish during two 45-minute computer sessions — the library’s maximum — she asks to borrow a laptop from her cousin.

She wants to be the first person in her immediate family to go to college, she said, and she doesn’t like to miss assignments or get bad grades. “I like to get my stuff done,” she said. Of the online history textbook, Eliza said, “I think it’ll be cool.”

The school system has developed several work-arounds for students who lack computers or Internet service. Schools have distributed lists of public Wi-Fi hot spots. Teachers keep sets of printed textbooks on hand for students who need them.

At Glasgow, which is in the Alexandria portion of Fairfax County and where about 62 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Principal Deirdre Lavery has extended after-school computer lab hours and developed a way for students to check out laptops overnight. Other schools are making similar adjustments.

“It’s a challenge,” said Paul Wardinski, principal of West Springfield High School, which bought several mobile computing labs and added a late-afternoon bus for students who stay after school to use school computers. “But it’s definitely the way of the future.”

A demand for laptops

Elsewhere, many schools that have made the leap from print to digital have done so alongside initiatives to provide a laptop or tablet for every student.

That approach has contributed to impressive gains in state test scores and graduation rates over the past four years in Mooresville, N.C., a small working-class community where 40 percent of students come from low-income families.

Mooresville Superintendent Mark Edwards said the laptops have turned classrooms into individualized learning laboratories where teachers can pinpoint each child’s weaknesses and tailor lessons accordingly. Students are more engaged — they tend “to sit up a little bit straighter and lean in a little bit more,” said Edwards, who added that giving every child round-the-clock laptop access was key to the program’s success.

Providing a laptop for every student in Fairfax — which has 175,000 students, more than 30 times the number in Mooresville — would be complicated and expensive. But there is little doubt that bridging the digital divide will become an increasingly pressing issue.

To ease demand on school laptops, officials are encouraging students who have their own at home to bring them to school. There are also plans to lend computers to needy children on a large scale, in much the way schools lend musical instruments.

Lavery said schools can’t wait until every problem has been solved to embrace digital learning. She said they must push ahead and help the least-privileged students overcome technological barriers as they arise.

“I’m of the belief that if you don’t step off the cliff and take the risk,” Lavery said, “the schism is going to become wider and wider.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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