Are digital textbooks worth it?

There were “hiccups,” Herring says, but nothing like what happened when they abruptly shifted to the new math books, which relied on an internet connection to the district’s website, which ended up overloading their servers.

“I don’t know that anybody anticipated how much traffic our division would bring to the site,” explains Rose Moore, mathematics coordinator for the district. Three years later, Fairfax now has sufficient infrastructure to support the load, as well as a help desk maintained by Pearson. Importantly, help is available when kids start homework late at night. But the district continues to search for a way to relieve teachers of the cumbersome task of giving each student access to their online accounts, since they have not yet found a way to seamlessly integrate the process with their SIS.

The district uses a BYOD approach to grant students access, and supplements that by letting kids check out devices and hotspot cards for wifi access. They work diligently to ensure access in high poverty schools. One school, upon device checkout, supplies maps and tours of free, neighborhood wifi spots such as the library, McDonalds, and Starbucks. Even so, home access is not guaranteed. Herring tells that their advance survey asked if the family had a computer at home, but a “yes” failed to account for multiple kids needing access to multiple textbooks. “Generally, the older kid would win out,” says Herring, “The middle school student wouldn’t be able to get on to do their math homework because it was being used by the senior studying for AP.”

Generally, Herring advises districts look into short-term contracts of no more than two to three years. New options are on the market from their publisher, but Fairfax remains locked in to a 6-year contract with an old version. The district has also discovered the importance of defining technical standards for contracts.

“Everything is changing so quickly,” says Herring. “I’m not sure the future is these big basal textbooks. We develop a lot of curriculum ourselves…and we like pulling from other places.” As he watches teachers, he realizes, “They’d rather pick and choose.” Herring also advises giving teachers substantial time to learn the features and resources of a new, digital platform before sharing it with students.

(Next page: A digital platform with Big 3 textbooks)

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