[LINK] In some [USA] classrooms, books are a thing of the past

Bernard Robertson-Dunn brd at iimetro.com.au
Tue Oct 20 09:58:24 AEDT 2009

In some classrooms, books are a thing of the past
Digital texts gaining favor, but critics question quality
By Ashley Surdin
Monday, October 19, 2009

AGOURA HILLS, CALIF. -- The dread of high school algebra is lost here 
amid the blue glow of computer screens and the clickety-clack of keyboards.

A fanfare plays from a speaker as a student passes a chapter test. 
Nearby, a classmate watches a video lecture on ratios. Another works out 
an equation in her notebook before clicking on a multiple-choice answer 
on her screen.

Their teacher at Agoura High School, Russell Stephans, sits at the back 
of the room, watching as scores pop up in real time on his computer 
grade sheet. One student has passed a level, the data shows; another is 
retaking a quiz.

"Whoever thought this up makes life so much easier," Stephans says with 
a chuckle.

This textbook-free classroom is by no means the norm, but it may be 
someday. Slowly, but in increasing numbers, grade schools across the 
country are supplementing or substituting the heavy, expensive and 
indelible hardbound book with its lighter, cheaper and changeable 
cousin: the digital textbook.

Also known as a flexbook because of its adaptability, a digital textbook 
can be downloaded, projected and printed, and can range from simple text 
to a Web-based curriculum embedded with multimedia and links to Internet 
content. Some versions must be purchased; others are "open source" -- 
free and available online to anyone.

Some praise the technology as a way to save schools money, replace 
outdated books and better engage tech-savvy students. Others say most 
schools don't have the resources to join the digital drift, or they 
question the quality of open-source content.

Hardbound books still dominate the $7 billion U.S. textbook market, with 
digital textbooks making up less than 5 percent, according to analyst 
Kathy Mickey of Simba Information, a market research group.

But that is changing, as K-12 schools follow the lead of U.S. 
universities and schools in other countries, including South Korea and 
Turkey. In Florida's Broward County, students and teachers log online to 
access digital versions of their Spanish, math and reading books. In 
Arizona, classes at one Vail School District high school are conducted 
entirely with laptops instead of textbooks. And in Virginia this year, 
state officials and educators unveiled a free physics flexbook to 
complement textbooks.
California's experiment

California made the largest embrace of digital textbooks this summer 
when it approved 10 free high school math and science titles developed 
by college professors and the CK-12 Foundation, a Palo Alto-based 
nonprofit aimed at lowering the cost of educational materials. The 
titles were approved as meeting at least 90 percent of California's 
academic standards, with the state leaving the choice to use them up to 
individual schools.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) hopes they will. His digital textbook 
initiative is meant to cut costs in the severely cash-strapped state. 
(Given that the average textbook costs $100, he argued, the state could 
save $400 million if its 2 million high school students used digital 
math and science texts.) The initiative also aims to replace aging 
hardbound books that don't teach students about the Iraq war, the 
country's first black president or the Human Genome Project.

"The textbooks are outdated, as far as I'm concerned, and there's no 
reason why our schools should have our students lug around these 
antiquated and heavy and expensive books," Schwarzenegger said this 
summer. "Digital textbooks are good not only for the students' 
achievement, but they're also good for the schools' bottom line."

California public and private schools spent more than $633 million on 
textbooks in 2007, making the state the biggest spender nationwide, 
according to the latest data from the Association of American 
Publishers. Schools in Texas spent $375 million; in New York, $264 
million. The District spent $13.9 million.
Controlling costs?

Concerns over costs prompted Congress to pass legislation last year that 
requires publishers to disclose the price of textbooks when they sell 
them to teachers. It also ends a practice in which publishers sell books 
and supplemental materials together, driving up costs. Several states 
have passed similar legislation.

But some dispute the idea that digital textbooks -- even open-source 
versions -- will be cheaper for states, at least right away, or improve 
education quality.

"Keep in mind that with open-source materials, you have to ask, 'Where 
are they coming from?' " said Jay Diskey, executive director of the 
Association of American Publishers' school division. "Is it a trusted 
source? Is it aligned to state standards? Is it based on real research?"

Diskey said traditional textbooks offer a comprehensive curriculum, 
while some open-source texts provide only bits and pieces. "There can be 
quite a difference of content and accuracy," he said. "In many cases, 
you get what you pay for."

Textbook publishers face losing business as free Internet content 
expands. But Diskey blames the recession, not free digital books, for 
any fiscal hardships facing the industry. "We don't think budgets are 
being cut because of open-source materials," he said.
A lack of digital resources

Schools using digital texts say it's too soon to tell how much money 
they may be saving. As critics point out, long-term fiscal benefits 
require upfront resources that many schools lack: money, teacher 
training, bandwidth to support Internet multimedia and, most critically, 

The majority of households have personal computers and Internet access, 
according to a 2005 report from the Census Bureau, but access declines 
with income. And U.S. schools on average have roughly one computer for 
every four students, according to 2005 data from the National Center for 
Education Statistics.

"It's going to be a bit of a challenge for schools throughout the 
country to implement this new technology," said David Sanchez, president 
of the California Teachers Association. "How do you guarantee all 
children have access to that kind of textbook?"

Glen Thomas, California's education secretary, questions whether digital 
textbooks require a computer for every child. "This initiative is not 
about hardware," he said. "I visited a classroom where there were a 
couple kids using laptops, several had textbooks, some had a couple 
chapters printed out, and the lesson was displayed on a screen in front 
of the class."

For now, it appears that digital textbooks are largely a 
school-by-school, teacher-by-teacher choice. But converts such as 
Stephans of Agoura High School are quick to encourage more. "If there 
was a list of math teachers who would have signed up for this, I would 
have been at the bottom," said Stephans, who hesitantly agreed to pilot 
the textbook-free class this year. To educators considering the digital 
possibilities, he now says: "What are you waiting for?"


Bernard Robertson-Dunn
Canberra Australia
brd at iimetro.com.au

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