Fairfax County schools to try out online textbooks for a year

By Holly Hobbs
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Fairfax County public schools might be moving toward online textbooks, beginning with a pilot program this fall.

As part of the yearlong trial, social studies classes at six high schools and six middle schools will receive netbooks -- smaller, lightweight cousins of laptops -- online access to digital textbooks and other resources, such as instructional aides for teachers, said Peter Noonan, assistant superintendent for Instructional Services.

Schools have not been selected to participate in the pilot. The number of netbooks the system will distribute will be decided once schools have been selected.

The pilot program will be of no additional cost to the school system, and a full-scale program likely would save the schools money in the long run because online books cost less than new, printed books, Noonan said. The school system does not have a cost estimate for the online textbook program.

The county usually orders new textbooks after about seven years of use. With the approval of new social studies books on the horizon, officials are looking toward the digital switch. The pilot is designed to provide an early look at what issues could be caused by the new system.

"Access for students is going to be the major issue," Fairfax Superintendent Jack Dale said during discussions of the pilot during a recent School Board work session.

"If we don't go forward with this now, we will be overwhelmed by the tsunami of the kids and the industry doing this themselves," said School Board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville).

Frederick and Arlington counties are moving to online textbooks, Fairfax schools employees said.

In Springfield, Francis Scott Key Middle School science teacher Patricia Waters began using netbooks and online programming this past year as part of a school initiative. She attended the School Board's work session July 19 to discuss her experience.

"We actually found out that more students had access to the Internet than we thought," she said. The school system estimates that about 88 percent of households in the county have Internet access.

Waters said the switch to digital books took a "great deal of effort but was worth it." She said her students became more engaged in class discussions.

Some School Board members expressed concerns about the pilot program and the future of textbooks.

Tessie Wilson (Braddock) said she worried that online textbooks would have a negative impact on students with learning disabilities. She also is concerned about the distraction Internet access might cause during class, she said, citing the laptop ban imposed in classes at Georgetown University's law school after professors found them to be a distraction for students.

The School Board's student representative, Keegan Cotton, agreed, saying that high school students have found a way around Web site blockers used by the school system to limit access to social networking sites, such as Facebook.

"I feel like that's the problem that's going to come up," he said.

The scope of usage of netbooks probably will be studied during the pilot, Noonan said.

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