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.”

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