Adjusting to digital textbooks

ENGLEWOOD — Local schools are grappling with cost and content control as they transition to incorporate electronic books in schools.

New legislative requirements mean Florida students will be using digital textbooks by 2015.

Local school districts have already started making the change, but they face challenges in the form of affordability and content control.

‘There’s no doubt there’s going to be a shift,’ said Marcia Louden, principal of L.A. Ainger Middle School. ‘I think it’s already happening. What that’s going to mean for us, I don’t know yet.’

Louden, who owns an iPad, said children are digital natives — they become computer-proficient at a very young age.

‘I think our school has embraced technology to a high degree,’ Louden said. ‘Every one of our kids have computers. We call it the fifth academic. There’s always going to be teachers who aren’t going to be comfortable … with technology, but I would say our teachers have embraced technology overall.’

Chris Bress, executive director of Learning through Technology and Media for Charlotte County Public Schools, implemented pilot programs at Port Charlotte High and Middle schools where 300 iPads were distributed to each.

‘We put them in 10 classrooms apiece … so that they can begin to experiment with how they would be used for instruction not only for digital curriculum/digital textbooks, but also for use with apps,’ Bress said. ‘We’re up to 24 complete classrooms that are using the devices so that they can be experimenting with them and what it’s going to lead to.’

K-12 schools must adopt instructional material for all courses in electronic or digital format by the end of the six-year plan in 2015, Bress said.

Challenges in the transition

While students and teachers see the benefits of using educational apps on tablets, there are challenges like affordability.

‘One of the big problems that’s going to be faced by school districts is the ability to provide a device for every single person, because the cost would be prohibitive,’ Bress said. ‘It’s not something that people can do. You can factor in the cost of us as Charlotte County and look at the other counties around us like Lee County or Sarasota, it would cost them even more. Then if you look across the state like Miami-Dade, the cost would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars to buy those devices.’

Bress estimates the cost for Charlotte County, alone, would be around $8 million.

One alternative is a ‘bring your own technology’ initiative where students can bring in their own tablet devices for educational purposes. The difference between a school-issued tablet versus a tablet for the student’s personal use would be the recreational use.

‘If students are bringing in their own devices from home, we will have no way of saying things like, ‘You’re not allowed to have that video game on that device. It’s not appropriate for school,” Bress said. ‘So that’s something that needs to be factored into the equation as well.’

Bress said Android tablets will factor into the e-book program because they will run Flash and iPads will not, but the preference is Apple’s iPad, because of ‘the sheer volume of instructional applications that are designed for them.’

Schools get an annual allotment of technology based on the student population and can choose from a number of desktop and laptop computers and iPads. Up to 20 percent of the allocation can go to iPads, Bress said.

‘iPads are less expensive than computers,’ he said. ‘Instead of taking 24 computers, they could have 48 iPads.’

Sarasota County ahead of schedule

Scott Ferguson, communications specialist of Sarasota County schools, said Sarasota County is ahead of schedule in the state legislative effort to convert schools to digital textbooks by 2015.

‘The Sarasota County School District is in the pilot phase of trying different types of technologies and devices to meet the varying needs of our students,’ Ferguson said. ‘The district continues to offer professional development opportunities to ensure that our teachers are comfortable delivering their instructional content via a digital format.’

New middle school social studies books are the only fully interactive digital textbooks Sarasota County is using, but county schools are accessing e-book versions of many other textbooks.

Englewood Elementary School is in the second year of its tablet program.

‘It’s been outstanding,’ said principal Mark Grossenbacher. ‘We use the iPad for enrichment and intervention purposes as well as lab-based activities for our science lab. All of our science notebooks are done through the iPad. The iPad has been outstanding.’

Grossenbacher said the school plans to use the iPad at each grade level.

Lemon Bay High School is in its first year of allowing students to use their own tablets.

‘We’re in the beginning stages of that transition,’ said Dan Jeffers, Lemon Bay High School principal. ‘Some of our teachers are having kids bring in their own devices.’

Jeffers said he hears more from the teachers than students regarding the use of tablets. Teachers often use them for research and projects in the classroom. It’s at the teacher’s discretion whether students use them for group activities — not all students own one. There are no grants currently allotted to the school for tablet distribution for student use, but three years ago, teachers were able to procure iPads for their own use.

Bress said he’s unsure what the future of the program will be. He said we might not know for another year.

‘We’re kind of in a funky place if you think about it,’ Louden said. ‘We’re in-between two worlds in many ways.’

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About Tom

Tom Chang is a freelance journalist with a background in multimedia journalism and web publishing. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Journalism and Media Studies from the University of South Florida St.Petersburg. He graduated in 2004 with a Bachelors Degree in Mass Communications at USF Tampa. Tom's interests include a little bit of everything from entertainment to sports. He also wishes to delve into creative writing writing sci-fi/fantasy stories. Tom was recently the Online Editor for USF St. Petersburg's the Crow's Nest, he joined the staff in January 2010 where he started freelance writing, photographing, copy editing and later became a staff writer. Tom’s freelance experience in journalism amassed a wide range of companies including Creative Loafing, The Focus Magazine, Lutz News, Examiner.com, and Tampa Tribune.
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