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Fairfax County schools switch to digital textbooks

By Holly Hobbs,

Hayfield Secondary School teacher Ken Halla is quick to point out what is missing from his classroom.

“Where’s the supply closet?” he asked. Where are the shelves upon shelves of five-pound textbooks?

But neither shelves nor closets are needed when your class has gone digital.

This year, classrooms across the county are doing just that as Fairfax County public schools formally make the shift from hardcover to digital textbooks.

At Hayfield, students arrive in class and pull netbooks out of a traveling cart available to teachers using online textbooks. The first lesson of the day for Halla’s Advanced Placement Government class is a citizenship test available online through the students’ textbooks.

“We’re going to see if you guys can get enough right answers to be [U.S.] citizens,” Halla told the class.

Such questions as “Who was president during World War I?” and “How many justices are on the Supreme Court?” pop up as students — most of whom took U.S. history classes the previous year — ace the exam.

Next, Halla has students pull up a story from the Web showing that they have outdone the average American in correct answers.

By using the online textbook’s test and other resources, Halla said, he is able to make more information available to his students.

“It’s the Internet in a box,” he said. “You’ve got everything you’ve ever wanted.”

That includes videos from the History Channel, maps that come to life and text that can read itself aloud.

Last year, Fairfax County school system piloted online textbooks in social studies classes at six high schools and six middle schools.

“The transition has now taken place; we’re in month 13,” said Kurt Waters, specialist for high school social studies with county school system.

Fairfax has about 77,000 online textbooks in social studies classrooms in grades seven through 12. That’s about 12,000 books per grade level, Waters said.

“We’re in more of a hybrid model” right now, he said. “Every student in Fairfax County has an online subscription, but we also have print copies of the textbook available in classrooms. . . . We don’t want the online [books] to prevent a student from learning.”

Feedback from teachers has been positive, Waters said.

“The whole publishing industry is moving toward online,” he said. “When you have a decision, as we did this summer, to buy a hardcover book or digital books … if we had bought hardcovers, those books would have been updated in 2017. Do we really want to be using those books by then?”

Online textbooks are updated frequently, Waters said.

“Right now, the online pricing is a little bit better than the print books,” he said. “Two years ago, it wasn’t like that. In the beginning, it was more expensive.”

He said additional competition in the publishing industry has lowered prices.

Students in Halla’s class said they have mixed feelings about the switch. In the second week of classes, they and Halla still are navigating the new system and working out the kinks.

“I don’t use a computer a lot at home,” said senior Katie Ingebretsen, 17. “So having to do everything online. . . . I’ll get used to it, but it’s infuriating.”

Fellow senior Steven Ross, 17, had a history class that used online textbooks last year.

“It improved my scholastic performance,” he said. “I was always looking for my textbook in the house, and here I could just log on and do it.”

Online textbooks are the future, senior Rebecca Goldwater, 16, said. “I think they are a necessary evil at this point,” she said. “If you look at the technologic advancement, this is the way we’re headed.”

Other students said having the netbooks and online text in class is preparing them for college classes, where laptops are more heavily used for note taking.

“In high school, it’s a bit harder to be connected,” senior Brenna Hanes, 17, said. “When you’re at college, there is Wi-Fi everywhere.”

Some students, particularly those with siblings, said accessibility to the online content can become a problem when they are working from home.

“I’m a supporter of the e-book in school, but you have to think of the circumstances at home,” said senior Olivia Lloyd, 17. “I have to share with six people.”

As the school system purchases more netbooks, it eventually will switch to all students using online textbooks, Waters said. He said math will make the switch next.

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