Can eBooks help bridge achievement gaps?

Now, instead of book stacks, the library at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., features electronic books, Wi-Fi access, lounge-type seating, a coffee shop, more librarians—and, not surprisingly, more students.

With access to more and better books online and more comfortable surroundings, the school’s library has become a popular gathering place for students doing research and homework.

While cash-strapped public schools likely will skip the cappuccino machine, the concept of trading in 20,000 print books for greater comfort, robust databases, and online access to hundreds of thousands of high-quality books makes good economic sense.

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Electronic books are cheaper to produce, catalog, access, and maintain than print tomes, while eReader costs are much less than laptop computers and netbooks. A $26 hardcover book costs $4.05 to produce vs. 50 cents for a $9.99 eBook, according to Newsweek magazine.

eBooks also are greener. While Newsweek estimates that the carbon emissions required to make 40 to 50 books equals that of one eReader device, one eReader can hold thousands of books. For eco-conscious students, stats like this might spur faster eReader adoption rates.

More importantly, eReaders and eBooks might help reignite a love of reading among today’s tech-oriented students., for example, estimates that Kindle users buy and read three times as many books as they did before buying the popular eReader device. Other surveys report similar results. Sales of eReaders and eBooks were brisk for the holidays, and industry experts expect eBook sales to double in 2011.

Because many classics are available electronically free of charge, and as school districts make more academic content available in digital formats for parents and students, putting a 500-book library in the palm of every child’s hand suddenly doesn’t seem so out of reach.

Detroit Public Schools, for example, is expanding its digital curriculum for students and staff. DPS is now streaming digital content from Discovery Education and Discovery Education Science, including virtual labs, simulations, video clips, and reading passages for secondary school students.

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