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More schools experimenting with digital textbooks

Students in Russell Stephans's high school algebra class in Agoura Hills, Calif., use digital materials instead of traditional textbooks.
Students in Russell Stephans's high school algebra class in Agoura Hills, Calif., use digital materials instead of traditional textbooks. (Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)

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By Ashley Surdin
Monday, October 19, 2009

AGOURA HILLS, CALIF. -- The dread of high school algebra is lost here amid the blue glow of computer screens and the clickety-clack of keyboards.

A fanfare plays from a speaker as a student passes a chapter test. Nearby, a classmate watches a video lecture on ratios. Another works out an equation in her notebook before clicking on a multiple-choice answer on her screen.

Their teacher at Agoura High School, Russell Stephans, sits at the back of the room, watching as scores pop up in real time on his computer grade sheet. One student has passed a level, the data shows; another is retaking a quiz.

"Whoever thought this up makes life so much easier," Stephans says with a chuckle.

This textbook-free classroom is by no means the norm, but it may be someday. Slowly, but in increasing numbers, grade schools across the country are supplementing or substituting the heavy, expensive and indelible hardbound book with its lighter, cheaper and changeable cousin: the digital textbook.

Also known as a flexbook because of its adaptability, a digital textbook can be downloaded, projected and printed, and can range from simple text to a Web-based curriculum embedded with multimedia and links to Internet content. Some versions must be purchased; others are "open source" -- free and available online to anyone.

Some praise the technology as a way to save schools money, replace outdated books and better engage tech-savvy students. Others say most schools don't have the resources to join the digital drift, or they question the quality of open-source content.

Hardbound books still dominate the $7 billion U.S. textbook market, with digital textbooks making up less than 5 percent, according to analyst Kathy Mickey of Simba Information, a market research group.

But that is changing, as K-12 schools follow the lead of U.S. universities and schools in other countries, including South Korea and Turkey. In Florida's Broward County, students and teachers log online to access digital versions of their Spanish, math and reading books. In Arizona, classes at one Vail School District high school are conducted entirely with laptops instead of textbooks. And in Virginia this year, state officials and educators unveiled a free physics flexbook to complement textbooks.

California's experiment

California made the largest embrace of digital textbooks this summer when it approved 10 free high school math and science titles developed by college professors and the CK-12 Foundation, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit aimed at lowering the cost of educational materials. The titles were approved as meeting at least 90 percent of California's academic standards, with the state leaving the choice to use them up to individual schools.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) hopes they will. His digital textbook initiative is meant to cut costs in the severely cash-strapped state. (Given that the average textbook costs $100, he argued, the state could save $400 million if its 2 million high school students used digital math and science texts.) The initiative also aims to replace aging hardbound books that don't teach students about the Iraq war, the country's first black president or the Human Genome Project.

"The textbooks are outdated, as far as I'm concerned, and there's no reason why our schools should have our students lug around these antiquated and heavy and expensive books," Schwarzenegger said this summer. "Digital textbooks are good not only for the students' achievement, but they're also good for the schools' bottom line."


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