Something’s missing at the new Sun Valley Charter High School in Ramona, Calif. There are no textbooks, only computers. That means students there don’t have to lug heavy backpacks—a familiar ritual for many young Americans who carry books from class to class and home at day’s end.

Growing back pain complaints prompted a new California law limiting textbook weight. But some experts say assignments drawn from the internet, “eBooks,” or CD-ROMs will be the real solution. “It’s not the wave of the future; it’s the wave of the present,” says David Tarr, executive director at Sun Valley High, a public school near San Diego.

Officials there used money normally spent on textbooks for computers. The new school’s first students—about 60 incoming freshmen—get assignments from such services as Cuestia.com, an online library, and Interactive Mathematics, curriculum on computer CD.

Health problems attributed to backpacks are increasingly common, says Grace Walker, a registered physical therapist in Orange, Calif.

Each year, she and other practitioners say they’re seeing more young people with backpack-related pain. In severe cases, it can lead to curvature of the spine.

That’s not an issue at Sun Valley High. Sometimes, students there print out assignments to take home. And if homework requires a computer, they can use the schools’ machines after school.

Still, in some lower-income districts, textbooks—let alone computers—are already scarce. Elementary students in some Chicago Public Schools, for example, aren’t allowed to take textbooks home for fear they’ll get lost or stolen. Students often copy assignments out of textbooks.

Such funding shortages make CD-ROMs and desktop computers seem unattainable.

“Clearly, electronic delivery will make this problem go away. But I think we’re a number of years away from that,” says Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division, a trade organization for textbook publishers.

Still others believe that, with wider use, high-tech devices will be cheaper than costly-to-print textbooks.

That’s why, last spring, Richard Bellaver asked his graduate students at Ball State University to test eBooks, handheld devices that present electronic text and pictures. He says the average scores of students who studied only with eBooks and those who used traditional textbooks were virtually the same.

Now he wants to try other high-tech options to see what works best for students—”and hopefully, save them some money,” says Bellaver, associate director of the university’s Center for Information and Communication Sciences.

Whatever technology becomes dominant, Mark Gross—founder and CEO of Data Conversion Laboratory Inc.—says schools eventually will save money.

“This will be a boon for poor educational districts,” says Gross, whose New York-based company has converted everything from bulky law books to the Defense Department’s weapons systems guides into electronic text.

Until then, New Jersey is considering imposing a maximum textbook weight. California’s Gov. Gray Davis signed a similar measure in October.

Textbook publishers, meanwhile, suggest restoring lockers that have been removed at many schools and giving students time between classes to get to them. Driesler also says more students should wear backpacks properly—on both shoulders instead of one—even if that method has, as he puts it, a “dweeb factor.”

See these related links:

Sun Valley Charter High School http://www.sunvalleycharter.org

Association of American Publishers http://www.publishers.org

“The Usability of eBook Technology” (Bellaver’s study) http://www.bsu.edu/web/cics/ ebook_final_result.asp

American Chiropractic Association backpack guidelines http://www.acatoday.com/ media/tips/backpacks.shtml