A Florida school district that tested an interactive, web-based textbook in place of a traditional textbook for a half year in six classrooms found that students were more focused and engaged and completed more homework. Despite the pilot project’s success, however, educators involved in the program say few schools are ready to replace their print versions with electronic ones anytime soon.

Staff from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ division of instructional technology and media support services studied the effect of Pearson Prentice Hall’s electronic textbook, the iText, on learning in grades seven, nine, and eleven.

“We started looking at iText and other products to see if they could enhance education for a child,” said Patricia L. Evans, supervisor of instructional materials and textbook services for the district.

Evans wanted a textbook that would promote in-depth learning, support various learning styles, and provide word definitions, simulations, audio, and video clips. It also had to give students the ability to change the font, search for concepts by keyword, and get immediate feedback on lessons.

Evans began asking textbook publishers about the possibility of receiving interactive textbooks after seeing her own children’s frustrations with traditional textbooks. A typical homework assignment might ask her child to complete 20 questions, she explained, but if her child got off to the wrong start, then the error was reinforced 20 times.

“I was looking to this technology to see if it could stop a child from repeating the wrong methods over and over,” Evans said. “Pearson was the first publisher to come to Miami-Dade and say, ‘We think we have what you want.'”

The schools that participated in the pilot project had to meet the following criteria: They had to use the Pearson Education textbooks adopted by the state; they had to provide a one-to-one ratio of laptop or desktop computers per student; and students had to have internet access at home.

The teachers of the two middle school classes and four high school classes that took part varied widely in their technical ability. “I had one that was, quite honestly, a technophobe,” Evans said. “Now he is quite in love with the product.”

The students also were drawn to the idea. “The kids were overwhelmingly positive with the online textbook,” Evans said. “They told me they preferred it to traditional textbooks.”

Overall, homework completion rates were higher than ever, and students moved seamlessly between productivity software and the online text when completing assignments.

“The teachers said the video and audio helped teach and explain some of the concepts better,” Evans said.

When explaining Hitler’s propaganda, for example, a film clip has the greatest impact, she said. Having the video embedded right into the textbook increases instruction time by saving teachers from having to set up a film projector and cuing to the specific clip.

“One teacher uses the video clip first when he’s teaching a lesson to get the students’ attention. And again, there’s no need to set up extra equipment—it’s right there,” Evans said.

Despite the success of the Miami-Dade pilot project, Evans is doubtful many schools will begin to use electronic textbooks exclusively.

“We’re not ready as a society to give up the traditional textbook,” she said.

For online texts to work as well as traditional ones, students each need their own internet-connected laptop or computer. “One of our biggest problems is providing every student with [his or her] own computer,” Evans said.

In fact, the teachers who participated in the study last year have switched to a combination of traditional and online textbooks. Evans said there could be many reasons for this, including more limited access to computers, slower internet connections during the school day, and accommodating different students’ learning preferences.

“We are not moving in the direction of replacing the paper textbook, but of having this to enhance what’s going on in the classroom and what students are doing for homework,” Evans said.

Also, Florida schools do not have the option yet to use an online textbook solely. “Right now, it’s not a choice, but [state officials] are definitely studying it,” Evans said.

As a standard, all major textbook publishers offer online versions for free with the purchase of their traditional textbooks, said Evans, who has reviewed many of the online texts.

“Each one has different strengths. They are all excellent … I have not seen one yet that I did not like,” Evans said. Of iText, she said, “It can give immediate feedback, and it works for many modalities of learning, and we’re very pleased with it. It’s something we will continue to push for the use of in our district. But, again, I would not say exclusively.”

iText is available through Pearson Prentice Hall’s education portal, known as PH SuccessNet. It enables students to access audio summaries of each chapter, click on words to find the definitions or pronunciation, or watch video. It also incorporates other languages, such as Spanish, and animations that students can manipulate.

Pearson offers its iText on CD-ROM as well, but this version lacks some of the functionality of the web version. For example, students can’t take notes or save the answers to their homework questions.

iText currently is available for middle school writing, literature, grammar, and science; high school biology; and high school writing, literature, and grammar. Middle and high school math and social studies are expected to follow soon.

Links:

Miami-Dade County Public Schools
http://www.dadeschools.net

iText
http://www.phschool.com/successnet

Pearson Education
http://www.pearsoned.com