The rise of digital textbooks

As schools shift to 21st century learning in a time of budget crunches, digital textbooks in classrooms are on the rise. To help educators and administrators efficiently implement digital texts, two diverse districts share their motivations, tactics, and goals for their textbook programs.

Recently, Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state education leaders announced that they will be working together to compile a list of free, open digital textbooks that meet state-approved standards and will be available to high school math and science classes this fall. Gov. Schwarzenegger said that “as California’s budget crisis continues, we must find such innovative ways to save money and improve services.” (Read “California considers open digital textbooks.”)

“Most textbooks have electronic content and tools, and many supplemental and remediation products are technology-based. Students must be proficient with the skills and knowledge that are necessary to live a productive adult life, and there’s no debate that technology will be a big part of it. I think Gov. Schwarzenegger knows what he’s doing,” said Cynthia Saunders, principal of Lake Weir High School in Florida’s Marion County Public Schools.

Lake Weir has approximately 1,680 students; 35 percent of students come from rural areas and 15 percent from small towns. Sixty-five percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Saunders said that as the school tries to prepare its students for the 21st century, students must be proficient with technology–part of this means using digital textbooks.

“We no longer can teach as we were instructed and expect our students to learn in today’s world. By using laptops and having access to textbooks electronically, they will not need to tote books, and it will reduce costs as well,” explained Saunders.

The decision to use digital textbooks was part of Marion County’s three-year technology plan to provide wireless network access to all secondary schools. Once wireless was installed, students could use laptops for a variety of projects. Saunders’ nine-week pilot program officially began in March and allowed freshman students in Lake Weir’s English class to use laptops to access information and use digital texts.

The district used funds normally allocated for textbooks and instead purchased laptops with digital versions of the texts loaded on the hard drives. Students used the laptops every day in English class, were allowed to take them home to complete homework, and used them to complete group projects.

When choosing the laptops, Marion County school district has standardized on Dell computers since 2001, which Saunders says provides operational efficiency as it relates to purchasing new systems, refreshing equipment, updating software, and maintaining hardware through the self maintainer program of Dell Services.

Marion County uses Optiplex for Desktops, Latitudes for laptops, and 2100s for students. The pilot group consisted of 25 mini’s, 25 regular-sized laptops, and 25 Mac Computers.

“We were looking for a laptop that would reduce our costs by 50 percent, provide internet access, and leverage our campus-wide wireless system,” said Saunders.

Along with laptops, the school purchased computer carts to charge and safeguard computers. The cost of both student laptops and the carts totaled approximately $30,000.

Saunders said the school chose the freshman English class for its pilot because the subject is assessed in March for the FCAT (Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test). The data would also be easy to collect and track, and “it’s also very important to keep our ninth-graders engaged in learning so that they want to continue with classroom instruction and maintain a 2.0 GPA,” said Saunders. “This is the grade level that if we lose them, it is hard for them to make it to graduation.”

The main reason the school wants to switch to digital textbooks is a financial one, explained Saunders. Besides not having to buy new books, “it will help with replacement costs when books are lost or damaged.”

Saunders said digital texts will help keep items fluid as well. “Once a book is printed, until the next edition is in print, you are stuck with that current text. With technology, [textbook] items can change as quickly as a download of new information.”

It also will be easier on students who typically have to carry very heavy books while walking to class, she added.

During the pilot project, students used curriculum-approved digital texts aligned with state standards to complete several projects, including: making instructional videos, reading a novel in PDF format, and completing a research project using a social networking site as the vehicle to produce the final product.

It is worth noting that the school tracked students’ state reading test scores and found that the students in the pilot program improved to 36 points (the school’s average was 26 points). Saunders and the school believe the increase might be due to the new laptops and available resources.

Moving forward to the 2009-10 school year, Lake Weir will use Microsoft’s Live@edu to access the service’s 25 GB of online storage to reduce the need for bigger hard drives in the 2100 laptops. By doing this, they can buy less expensive laptops, which would reduce costs to around $12,000 for 30 PCs.

Beginning in August, students will have the option of purchasing a laptop with English texts installed. The cost will be around $400.

School district officials also say students may one day be given district-issued laptops with every class’s books installed. Just like books, the laptops would be returned at the end of the school year.

The district’s advice to other school districts is to be sure to plan ahead for laptop battery life, storage capacity, and to identify the classes that are most adaptable to using digital textbooks.

A different perspective

While some districts may praise Gov. Schwarzenegger’s decision, some have other ideas.

According to Todd Whitlock, technology and curriculum coordinator for North Daviess Community Schools, located in Elnora, Ind., moving to digital textbooks as a whole is not a good idea.

“Digital textbooks reinforce the same old way of teaching–just a different . We must invest in teaching how to use existing resources and those that are not even created yet instead of relying on textbooks as the driving force of curriculum, regardless if it is digital or bound in a book,” he said.

North Daviess is a district located in a rural southern part of Indiana with 1,100 students and a high Amish population. Only 63.8 percent of adults have a high school diploma, and less than 7 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The need to implement online texts and resources came through the district’s involvement with state level organizations and committees.

“The need to integrate technology within 21st century learning continued to be a focus and push for us,” said Whitlock. “To do this we realized we must move from the textbook as the curriculum to using all information available to meet state standards. This is what we call the ‘living textbook.”

On August 17 of this year, 175 HP Mini 2140s will be distributed to the district’s ninth and tenth-graders as part of the “Living Textbook” program. The district purchased one per estimated student plus 10 percent.

The district requested quotes from all manufacturers to deliver a product with a six-hour battery life and a cost of less than $400.

Because the district is a New Tech Learning Model, project-based learning is a must.

Students, especially those in social studies, will download only the material they “need to know” to complete the task, said Whitlock.

“We will only be loading textbooks digitally if we own them currently and do not plan on downloading ‘new’ textbooks. We plan to move towards using classroom sets as resources, thus reducing the cost for parents and the district.”

Whitlock said the benefit for the district in making this switch is financial, but also, students will take ownership of their own learning–which Whitlock believes will engage students and reduce truancy.

The North Daviess “Living Textbook” initiative is funded within the state textbook laws and also from a general fund–Indiana law allows schools to adopt systemically organized material as textbooks, and this includes technology.

North Daviess will evaluate classes each year, as well as textbooks scheduled for adoption, to determine if a “new” textbook needs to be adopted or if the old textbook can be used as a classroom set and the content be driven using the resources currently available.

North Daviess has partnered with Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Matrix Integration to get the new HP Compaq Mini 2140 Notebook PC for $440 with a 3-year warranty.  The student rental will be $55 for incoming ninth graders per year for 4 years and $73.33 per year for 3 years for incoming tenth graders.  This yearly fee will be in place of the textbook rental fee for identified classes–which Whitlock says could be up to $120 per student per year.

The district will pay the same rate each year so the cost is equally divided between the district and the parents.

“This model will reduce the cost of textbooks to the district and parents.  In line with the textbook rental framework, the student is charged a ‘rental’ fee for the laptop and content, equal to or below what a textbook would cost.  The benefit of this program goes beyond reducing the cost of textbook rental.  We will provide a solution that will allow the students to save web sites they visit and the research they complete at school.  This allows a student without internet at home to have the same opportunities as those with internet to complete a project and be successful within the rigorous academic studies of the 21st century high school. At the end of four years, the computers will be declared surplus and the student will leave with their ‘living textbook,” explained Whitlock.

Whitlock believes that if a school his size with such a limited tax base can do this, so can any school.

“When there is a will and vision, there is a way. With the support of the superintendent, school board, and community, it can be replicated.”

Whitlock’s advice to other schools looking to implement “living textbooks” is to plan ahead.

“The imaging and inventorying has been the most time consuming, but prior implementation has been done by our technology staff and a volunteering college student.”

The district hopes to roll out four-year rotations of laptops in grades nine through twelve and then in grades five through eight.


Lake Weir High School

North Daviess Community School Corporation

Dell 2100

HP 2140

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Empowering Education Through Technology resource center. Integrating technology into the classroom can be a challenge without the right guidance. Go to: Empowering Education Through Technology

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