Technology Trends | Feature

Opening Up to Digital Textbooks

Working with the district's IT department, a high school in Florida has switched over to electronic textbooks for the 2010-2011 school year in an effort to increase student learning opportunities and save money (and maybe a few trees) in the process.

Student backpacks will be a lot lighter this year at Clearwater High School in Clearwater, FL thanks to an initiative that's being spearheaded by the school's principal, and Pinellas County School District's IT and media services teams. This semester, paper textbooks have gone the way of the 8-track tape in favor of Kindle e-readers.

Loaded with all of the textbooks that each student needs for the upcoming school year, the e-readers are replacing traditional textbooks, save for the "classroom sets" that will be retained and used as needed.

Keith Mastorides, principal, said he worked closely with John Just, assistant superintendent of MIS, and Bonnie Kelly, supervisor of library/media technology, to bring the "all e-books, all the time" idea to fruition. Mastorides said the original goal was to put a laptop computer in the hands of every student. It didn't take long for that idea to get shelved, mainly owing to the high costs involved. "We realized it would be way too expensive," he said, "and that we couldn't afford to do something like that."

Working with feedback obtained from an annual survey that included input from staff, students, and the community, Mastorides set out on a different path to putting more technology in students' hands. The bottom line, he said, is that today's students think in a way that's different from their predecessors, and "they really love their technology and want to be able to use more of it in school."

To help make that happen, Mastorides turned to a new centralized decision-making process being used throughout the district. He put together a committee focused on infusing more technology into the classroom and came up with a plan centered around the use of e-readers for all grade levels at Clearwater High School. "Our district is using a new process that's given principals more leeway with policies and budgets," said Mastorides. "Using that, we developed a plan and submitted it to the district."

Cost was a major selling point, according to Mastorides, who estimated the price of a single e-reader to be equal to the retail price of two high school textbooks. He strived to keep the investment "within budget," all the while ensuring that the implementation would be easy for other district schools to replicate, if desired.

The plan passed muster with the school board, and the high school negotiated the purchase of 2,100 Kindles from Amazon. Mastorides has also had several meetings with textbook publishers over the last few months to figure out "just how many books we can afford to put on the devices."

Students won't be able to purchase books that haven't been approved by the district, which is going to offer insurance coverage for the devices in case of loss, theft, or damage. "We realize that it's an expense, and a responsibility, for the student," said Mastorides, "so we're going to offer the policy as an added measure. It's something that we don't even do for our traditional textbooks."

Along with serving as an electronic format to read books, newspapers, and magazines, the e-readers will allow users to obtain word definitions, bookmark pages, highlight text, type notes, and convert text to voice (to listen to the books). The devices also offer limited Internet access at no charge via a 3G network. Before accessing the Web, students will have to sign a usage agreement stating that the e-reader won't be used to surf inappropriate sites.

Students, staff, and parents are enthusiastic about the new initiative, which is the first of its kind for a Florida high school and possibly even the first rollout nationally, according to Mastorides. Both the PTA and SAC (Student Advisory Committee) supported the idea "100 percent," he said, as did the school's student leadership group and representative council. "Everyone is really excited about it," said Mastorides, who hasn't run into any challenges yet. "We know at some point there will be hurdles to jump; we're just not sure what they are yet."

Mastorides said the e-reader initiative will not only reduce the amount of heavy books that students have to lug around all day, but it will also enhance curriculum content (through e-reader-based Internet research, for example) and put grade and attendance information at students' fingertips. "When we saw that the Kindles could do this for us, and for a lot cheaper price," said Mastorides, "we had to go for it."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].