Nearly a month into a revolutionary experiment in 21st-century education, students and teachers at Arizona’s Empire High School say they don’t seem to miss toting textbooks around.

When the school issued iBooks–laptop computers from Apple Computer Inc.–to each of its 340 students at the start of classes July 22, it became one of the first public bricks-and-mortar schools in the United States to shun printed textbooks.

School officials believe the electronic materials will get students more engaged in learning. Empire High, which opened its doors to students for the first time last month, was designed specifically to have a textbook-free environment.

“We’ve always been pretty aggressive in our use of technology, and we have a history of taking risks,” said Calvin Baker, superintendent of the Vail Unified School District, which has 7,000 students outside of Tucson.

Schools typically overlay computers onto their instruction “like frosting on the cake,” Baker said. “We decided that the real opportunity was to make the laptops the key ingredient of the cake … to truly change the way that schools operated.”

So far, the risk appears to be paying off. “In terms of the technology actually working, things have gone better than expected,” Baker said. “Anytime you do something brand-new, there are going to be issues that come up … but, by and large, getting it off the ground went really well.”

Two years ago, about 600 school districts nationwide had pilot projects to provide laptops for each student–a figure that’s likely doubled since then, said Mark Schneiderman, director of federal education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association in Washington, D.C.

But most still issue textbooks–for now.

Teacher Becky Ogle holds her iBook as she explains how to use an Excel spreadsheet to a freshman class at Empire High School in Vail, Ariz., on Aug. 16. (Associated Press photo)

“Because most schools are not starting from scratch … most districts are using a blended approach now and will phase out their printed textbooks,” he said.

For example, in the Henrico County school system near Richmond, Va., students in 23 middle and high schools will be using laptops for the fifth straight year, though teachers still use textbooks, said spokesman Mychael Dickerson.

Many publishers of traditional textbooks are offering digital formats to address the growing use of computers, and that has provided some of the material for Empire High’s curriculum. Teachers also use subscription services and free web resources. For example, in social studies courses, students use a database from educational publisher ABC-CLIO to study American history and other related topics, Baker said. Students and teachers also have access to netTrekker, a student-centric online search engine designed to produce reliable, educator-approved search results for in-school research projects and other lessons that incorporate use of the web.

Students get the materials over the school’s wireless internet network. The school has a central filtering system that limits what can be downloaded on campus. The system also controls chat-room visits and instant messaging that might otherwise distract wired students.

Students can turn in homework online. A web program, Turnitin.com, checks against internet sources for plagiarized material and against the work of other students, Baker said. “If you copy from your buddy, it’s going to get caught,” he said.

Before Empire High opened, officials looked at the use of laptops in other schools and decided that high school students were more engaged when using computers. Unlike many adults, teens weaned on digital material seem to have little difficulty adapting to reading primarily on computer screens, Baker said.

But educators also decided they could do more with the technology.

In addition to offering up-to-date information, teachers can make the curriculum more dynamic. For example, lessons in social studies, which might previously have been done in summaries, can include links to full Supreme Court rulings or an explorer’s personal account of a discovery.

Social studies teacher Jeremy Gypton said the transition was easier than expected. He said he assigns readings based on web sites, lists postings to news articles, uses online groups and message boards to keep the students connected on weekends, and asks them to comment on each other’s work. He said the online resources are great, because they allow him to tailor his instruction to the needs of each student individually.

One of the more surprising things, he said, was finding that students’ proficiency at video games and eMail hasn’t always translated into other computer skills.

“One of the greatest challenges actually is getting the kids up to speed in using Word, in using an internet browser for other than a simple global search,” Gypton said.

Baker agreed. Although students often are perceived as has having been weaned on the technology, he said, there is a big difference between using a computer in an instructional setting and using it for social purposes.

“It’s been a pretty steep learning curve for some students in terms of learning to navigate the digital world at school,” he said.

But even as students and teachers continue to get acquainted with their new environment, Baker said, there is a lot of enthusiasm for the project and its potential for the future.

Baker attributes much of the program’s early success to support from teachers, students, and the community at large. By making the program voluntary and recruiting teachers based on their interest in the program, he said, the school district has created a culture of innovation and imagination where everyone involved is committed to achieving a common vision.

“Every single participant has been ready and willing to help make this a success,” he said.

All of Empire’s students knew about the laptop-only setup when they enrolled, and students who were uncomfortable with it were allowed to enroll in the district’s other, more traditional schools. Yet Empire has a waiting list.

Julian Tarazon, a freshman, said he doesn’t miss lugging around a bag full of books.

“It was kind of hard at first, because you had to put things in folders,” Julian said, referring, naturally, to virtual folders on his computer’s desktop. “After a couple of days, you kind of get used to it.”

Freshman Morgan Northcutt said the computer system has made it easier to do assignments, and she isn’t as likely to lose them.

“There’re complications like hooking up with the internet, but other than that it’s been pretty easy,” Morgan said.

By and large, teachers, too, have enjoyed a fairly smooth transition at Empire, according to Baker. Though technology expertise was not a prerequisite for teachers who sought to transfer from any of the district’s existing high schools, he said, all of Empire’s instructors were selected based on their willingness to keep an open mind and to be innovative.

Once hired, every teacher took part in “a fair amount of training” to get acclimated with the technology, Baker said. But by far, the most effective means of learning–at least from the teachers’ perspective–has come from talking with their peers and trading ideas while on the job, he added.

“We really found that a lot of the standard in-service training that’s available is not an exact fit for our teachers, because we’re doing something that is entirely different,” he said. “Our newer teachers are most interested and benefit most from spending time with their peers.”

Despite all the technology, the school isn’t entirely paperless. It has a library, and students often are assigned outside reading.

“We’re not trying to eliminate books,” Baker said. “We love books.”

Added Gypton: “All of our literature books are paper-based. I couldn’t imagine curling up with a laptop in bed at night. If you ask me, that’s kind of creepy.”

Related stories:

Five lessons learned in Vail

New Catholic high school goes all-digital

Links:

Vail School District
http://www.vail.k12.az.us/index.php

Software and Information Industry Association
http://www.siia.net