21st Century Classroom: Transforming the Textbook
In 21st century classrooms, blackboard chalk is on the endangered list, the pop quiz has been replaced with clicker questions, and bowling alley technology (overhead projector transparencies) has disappeared, thanks to digital projectors and document cameras.
But if you’re going to point to any aspect of the classroom that still hasn’t covered much ground on its trip into the 21st century, it has to be the textbook. This ubiquitous accessory has been beset by editorial controversy as we have seen recently in Texas; has seen consistently high price increases of an average of six percent per year; and still inspires parental derision for the outdated information often portrayed.
And then there’s the matter of weight. The heft of textbooks was the subject of a 21-page report written in 2004 in California for the state’s board of education. According to researchers, the combined weight of textbooks in the four “core” subjects (social studies, math, reading/ language arts, and science) ran, on average, from eight pounds at the first grade level to 20 pounds at the 11th grade level. Legislation to mandate weight limitations quickly followed in that state.
As this comparison of two school districts on opposite sides of the country and economic spectrum illustrates, in a world rich with alternative methods of delivery of content exemplified by digitized conversation, Google books, the Kindle and iPad, the textbook is the next classroom object worthy of transformation.
Realigning the Budget with Netbooks
“Everyone has a different 1:1 approach,” says Gary Brantley, chief information systems officer for the Lorain City School District. “Ours was to eliminate the books.”
Lorain City Schools is located in a city 35 miles from Cleveland. The district has 18 schools and 8,400 students. By moving to digital delivery of textbooks Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson saw an opportunity to address several larger district challenges than simply replacing outdated texts. A majority of families are low-income; its schools were struggling to meet yearly academic progress measures; and the district had just come out from under a state-mandated “fiscal watch.”
And, recalls Brantley, Atkinson was sincerely concerned about the weight of the textbooks being hauled around by the kids in her schools.
That was the atmosphere under which initial discussions began, he says. The district quickly realized that adopting a 1:1 program with digital textooks at the heart of the initiative could reduce textbook expenses and help bring students into the 21st century. “We’re an inner city school district,” says Brantley. “We saw this as a way to level the playing field for our kids and give them equal access and opportunities with technology.”
After a pilot program in 2007 and 2008, the district went after a federal grant to partially fund a full rollout to 9th and 10th graders for the following year. In January 2009, the district used federal Title 1 and Ohio state educational technology grant funds to lease Dell Inspiron 910 netbooks. The following year that program was expanded to 6th, 7th, 8th, and 11th grades, and the district switched to Acer Aspire One AOD150-1577 netbooks. This fall the district hopes to add 12th graders to the program.
The publishers the district is working with on the program are the traditional ones: Pearson Prentice Hall; Holt McDougal; and McGraw-Hill/Glencoe. They have provided versions of the texts, Brantley says, that go beyond simply being a PDF of the book. “It’s interactive. For example, if you have someone like Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy in a history book, you can click on a picture, and it will tell you information about [that person] or [you can] do a search from the book to get more information about that particular person.”
Brantley is quick with numbers. He says that for 2,600 math books—the number of texts needed for grades nine through 12—the cost was going to be about $182,000. That’s $70 per book. The e-book edition for that same math book was about $15,000. The savings on that one text alone covered a large part of the expense of that first rollout of digital textbooks. The savings don’t stop there. An English textbook was priced at $163,673.05 for 2,475 books—about $66 per book. The digital version of the same volume was a fourth of the cost—$36,554.45.
Explains Brantley, Superintendent Atkinson “was very persistent” that the district find a content supplier for the program, even if it wasn’t one of the three or four big textbook publishers. The publishers were willing to try the program in pilot mode. “A lot of trust was built on both sides to make this happen,” he says.
Now, says Brantley, students don’t have to travel to labs to gain access to computers. “Basically, there’s a lab in every classroom. Every kid is using that netbook as a textbook and as a computer.”
Brantley knows the technology is making an impact. “I think it’s pushed us a long way. It’s allowing the students to become a lot more creative in what they do and how they do it. It’s also leveled the playing field. A lot of these kids don’t have computers or internet access at home. Because the books are loaded on the hard drive, [Superintendent Atkinson] has given kids the ability to work on things they’d only have access to in a limited time within the classroom or in the lab.”
Although Brantley says student testing scores have gone up, he can’t confidently point to quantifiable results tied directly to the digital textbooks. “We brought different pieces of technology into the district in the same period, so we have to let the program run for a little while,” he explains.
“But Why Do We Care?”
The Campbell Union High School District, next door to San Jose in California’s Silicon Valley consists of six sites, five of which have been designated by the state as excellent. During the 2009-2010 school year, they performed a pilot program to experiment with the replacement of textbooks with e-readers. Director of Technology Charles Kanavel and his IT team of five distributed 270 Sony Reader Touch model PRS-600s into English classes across the district’s sites.
“These kids get technology. They go home and look at YouTube all day. An e-reader isn’t that hard for them,” Kanavel explains. The goal of the pilot was to get a “true sense of what’s it like for the everyday student to use one of these things in terms of wear and tear and what they wanted to see on the device.”
The effort was spurred by the Williams Settlement, Kanavel says. That California statute calls for California schools to have sufficient educational materials and conditions to meet curriculum standards. In order to meet standards of currency, textbooks need to be replaced every seven years—an expensive proposition in a district with 8,000 students. “It’s $180 for a biology textbook. That’s just one. With e-readers and how ubiquitous they’ve become,” Kanavel recalls asking, “Why do they need to carry 80 pounds worth of books around, when we have the technology to do this differently?”
But that initial test might never have come about if Kanavel hadn’t persisted in trying to woo Sony to participate in the proof of concept, a process that took seven months. The Campbell director focused on Sony because of its durability, price, and open platform. “Kindle, if you drop it, it’s game over,” he says. “With the Nook you have to buy everything from Barnes & Noble. The [Apple] iPad with 32 or 64 Gb, that’s $600 to $800. With one iPad, I can get four e-readers from Sony at around $200 each.”
But persuading the manufacturer to pay attention to education’s needs wasn’t an easy sell. Kanavel, who has a background in investment banking, studied the company’s financial reports and figured out how many e-readers had probably been sold through its nearby Silicon Valley area store, the largest Sony store in the United States.
When he approached the company about doing a test, it replied, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, interesting. But why do we care?” In response, he used this argument: “You sold 14,000 at the Valley Fair store in a three month period. Those are respectable numbers. But realistically, our district is 8,000 kids. You’d sell me 8,000 units. Then I’d have to buy a quarter of that every year forever. Once I start on it, I can’t get off.” He also pointed out that Campbell was only a medium-sized district. “Take San Jose Unified —55,000 students right next door. That would make your store numbers look like nothing. And there are 32 districts in Santa Clara County alone. Think of the entire country. Then they started caring.”
Once Sony was on board, the next hurdle was the textbook publishers trying to safeguard the pricing model, according to Kanavel. He estimates that a single school might have 300 copies of a particular book. On average the textbook will cost $120 on the low side and $180 on the high side. That’s a total outlay of $36,000 to $54,000 for a single textbook in a single school in the Campbell district.
For English classes, however, many of the books contained classic works of literature that are now in the public domain and available on various digital book websites. “Shakespeare is Shakespeare. The guy’s not writing a new version,” Kanavel says. He has been able to make a deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for some digital textbooks in PDF format; but others—particularly novels —came from the Sony Reader Store; on Project Gutenberg (a good source for Shakespeare, he says); and via the OverDrive School Download Library.
The challenge faced by textbook publishers, he points out, is that they have to change their business model. Kanavel wants to set up a site license with the publishers, but so far those negotiations are still on-going, and, besides, many still have to convert their textbooks into the epub format.
But the financials, as this former numbers guy points out, still work out nicely for the district. “For example, historically we have paid $9 a book for paperback copies of Macbeth and 70 to 80 percent of them come back unusable at the end of the year. Now with the e-reader, that replacement cost goes to zero.”
On average 15 out of every 100 books in the district need to be replaced because they’re damaged, lost, or stolen. Often, the same student loses multiple books when he or she loses a backpack. “If you’re a parent, you have to pay to replace all of those books. If your student loses a history book, biology book, math book, and English book, that’s about $600,” Kanavel says. “If they lose an e-reader or it breaks, you pay for the replacement cost of the e-reader —$200 -- then we just download the content.” This, he adds, “has long-term implications for budgeting and funding.”
So far, Kanavel says, the pilot has been successful with students. “They’ve taken good care of them. I’ve only had three break out of 270, which is pretty good.” He plans to add an additional 200 e-readers to the district for the next school year. “One thing I’ve been very focused on with this pilot is offsetting the cost of textbook replacement with this device and making it easier on the kids.” He believes the district is on the right track.
Teachers and students are discovering other advantages. The e-readers have built-in dictionaries. If a reader has a visual impairment, text can be upsized quickly. Users can annotate, draw, and take notes—something that’s forbidden with traditional textbooks. When the year is over, the kids will return the devices, and that added material can be wiped from the hard disk.
But e-readers still aren’t perfect, he adds. First, not every book is available in a digital format. He cites a high school classic, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, as an example. Many textbooks have already been put on CD, but those are designed to be used in a PC. Publishers haven’t made huge inroads into converting their materials into the standard epub format that works with the major e-readers. But Kanaval is hopeful those gaps will diminish with time.
With the expected expansion of the pilot, negotiations with Sony continue. “We’ve proven that the kids can take care of them. The technology does work,” Kanavel says. “The next thing is to get Sony to build something bigger—an eight and a half by 11 inch format. And there are a lot of features that we don’t use. We’ve given them feedback on those things. There may be ways to cut cost by eliminating feature sets that can help them balance the cost of manufacturing.”
So given the experiences of these two districts—and others—how does a standard textbook stack up against an e-book? If a publisher needs to repair the mistakes introduced in the text, as happened with math books issued in Sacramento County in spring 2010, it won’t have to arrange to destroy the outdated books and incur shipping costs for the new ones; it can correct the errors and electronically distribute new versions of the content. In the face of a quickly evolving business model, publishers will be forced to adjust their pricing schemes—no doubt, to the advantage of the districts. In the matter of weight— well, the Acer netbook comes in under three pounds, and the Sony device is a little over 10 ounces. Those are metrics anyone can use no matter how much digital content sits on the devices.
Building the E-Book Structure
Although every e-book initiative shares common aspects—hardware, bandwidth, content, and professional development—how the program unfolds in your district will be unique. For example, should you connect e-readers to the internet?
In order to have a successful 1:1 implementation, you need hardware, bandwidth, content, and teacher professional development and buy in. But each district will be unique in its approach to implementing each aspect and the entire program. The question of when in implementation a district allows connection to the internet is a case in point. Campbell Union High School District in Silicon Valley wants students to stay on task as it implements e-books. Therefore, the Sony Reader Touch devices being used there don’t include web access. Although Sony does make a model of its e-reader that includes WiFi, according to Director of Technology Charles Kanavel, the decision to leave that feature out helps simplify the transition teachers have to make in integrating the device in the classroom.
“If I’m a teacher and I have these new devices in class, it affects my lesson planning,” he explains. “Without administrative control of access to the internet, some smart kid will make the thing text another e-reader. Then once that kid knows, all the kids will know. In class, instead of reading, they’re texting each other, surfing MySpace, and doing everything else. Have I just disrupted an entire class with this device? So let’s get the adoption in first. Let’s get the hurdles out of the way surrounding usage of content, usage of technology, and how it integrates into your standards in the classroom. Once that’s outlined, then we’ll figure out how to do WiFi.”
That absence of web access has also streamlined professional development. The district had 270 devices, which it handed out in English classes spread fairly evenly across its six sites. To ensure that the pilot wouldn’t get put on the back-burner by teachers uninterested in using the ereader, Kanavel had the principals at those sites nominate teachers to participate who were a “little bit tech savvy.”
From there, his IT team called teachers in for a demonstration of the Sony product they’d be using with their students. “That was it,” he says. “Maybe 30 minutes of Q&A with teachers, and off we went. The devices aren’t that complicated. You turn it on, pick your book, turn to the page, and that’s it.”
To make sure the program is on track, Kanavel has been doing evaluation of it in “real time.” “It’s not something we threw out there and said we’ll come back to you in six months. Every couple of weeks I’m pinging these teachers. They have direct lines back to me. As they’ve noticed things, they’ve emailed me.” Along with that, device maker Sony has put out surveys for the users too.
What complicates implementation of digital content in a 1:1 program is when the device being deployed is used for other purposes too. That’s the case at Lorain City School District in Ohio, which has distributed Acer netbooks to 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students. The goal there is to give its students access to technology and the wider world it can deliver. Many don’t have computers or an internet connection at home. Therefore, Chief Information Systems Officer Gary Brantley has chosen to implement WiFi on the devices.
The devices, which cost about $300 with software and maintenance, are loaded with a gigabyte of RAM, a 150 Gb or 160 Gb hard drive, an Intel Atom processor, a webcam, Windows XP Professional, Microsoft Office, a couple of calculators, 802.11 b/g WiFi, and, of course, digital textbooks.
Teachers have an interest in educating students about social networking, so, although access to the internet is filtered, the devices do allow access to sites such as Twitter, and Facebook. But that, says Brantley, “is being carefully monitored.”
Also, connectivity is necessary for implementation of CompuTrace, a program from Absolute Software that provides a service for tracking down lost, stolen, or missing devices. “We were finding that we were spending a lot of money replacing textbooks,” Brantley explains. “Now, we actually are spending less. If CompuTrace doesn’t find the netbook within 60 or 90 days, they pay for it. I can tell you they have found every single one.”
To simplify operations, the district uses only two images for the netbooks. Every middle school book in use is on every middle school netbook; and the same with all high school books. That approach, says Brantley, makes IT’s work easier since they don’t have to worry about granular inventory or “fool around” with what books any given student should be able to access.
The district has tackled the challenge of teacher acceptance from multiple sides. First, there was a teachers’ union aspect. Would it promote the change in teaching approaches necessary for success? To gain support, Brantley took the head of the union to a 1:1 conference to show her what could be done. After that, he says, “She came on board for the professional development piece.”
The next aspect was putting together programs and teams for professional development. Since the district has an “early release” day once a week, “that’s the block of time that increasingly is being dedicated to helping teachers learn how to integrate the technology into their classes. Gaining traction in that area is a longer haul,” Brantley admits. “It takes a while to get teachers on board with this.”
Next up for the Lorain district: implementation of a teacher recognition program and some type of graduate credit to motivate the teachers to try out new methods of instruction.
An area where Brantley has seen success is having the kids teaching the teachers. “That’s one thing that we’ve been trying to push,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to let the kids show you something as well. It becomes a collaborative effort.”
Challenges have surfaced in two IT areas. First, the sheer number of new devices has put a strain on Brantley’s department, which has 10 employees. “We’ve doubled the number of computers in the district but didn’t add one staff member,” he says. Second, IT has to be able to supply technical support to students in a timely manner. “Turnaround can’t be longer than a day. Even though we have spares, we still have to turn around these machines really quickly, so kids aren’t left without their books.”
But these burdens aren’t slowing down the district’s dreams. Brantley says eventually the netbook and digital textbook program could be expanded to every student in the district, from the fourth grade up.