Fox Valley schools face challenge of prepping for the e-future
Paper textbooks could be a thing of the past as school districts are pushed to go digital. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski challenged schools and companies this month to get digital textbooks in students’ hands within five years.
The Obama administration’s push comes two weeks after Apple Inc. announced it would start to sell electronic versions of a few standard high-school books for use on its iPad tablet. Digital books are viewed as a way to provide interactive learning, potentially save money and get updated material faster to students.
In Wisconsin, many Fox Cities school districts have adopted digital textbooks and are test-driving programs for use of electronics in the classroom.
The Neenah Joint School District launched a program last year that placed iPads into the hands of sixth-graders and selected fifth-graders across the district. The Menasha Joint School District bought HP netbooks for seventh-graders and has halted all purchases of paper textbooks.
Student have responded positively to the new technology, especially since it allows students to learn at their own pace, said Peter Pfundtner, director of technology in the Menasha school district.
“Kids are working on their homework into the wee hours of the night because they want to,” he said. “We forget that kids love to learn if they have some influence over what they’re learning.”
The Appleton Area School District has been committed to a program it calls the Classroom of the Future, which is discussing the best way to introduce digital textbooks and online learning into existing classrooms. Tech integration specialists have been placed in many schools in the district, and more will be added soon, said Kevin Steinhilber, chief academic officer for the district.
“We really see technology as a tool that allows students to access information and more appropriately engage them as learners,” he said. “It allows all students to continuously learn.”
Digital Learning Challenge
Many school districts are considering a Bring Your Own Device-based program that would allow students to bring in a laptop or tablet computer from home to use in the classroom. It’s a cost-effective model for school districts that don’t want to shoulder the cost of replacing digital platforms, but creates a question of access to students who wouldn’t own such a device.
“We have to ensure that all students have access,” said Mary Pfeiffer, Neenah’s school superintendent. “We have to ask, how are we going to support those families that can’t afford the technology?”
Obama’s administration released a 67-page “playbook” to schools that promotes the use of digital textbooks and offers guidance. The administration hopes that dollars spent on traditional textbooks can instead go toward making digital learning more feasible.
About $8 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on textbooks for children in kindergarten through 12th grade, said Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers. Most paper textbooks are priced at an average of $50 to $175 apiece. Digital textbooks, on the other hand, now hover around $15 apiece.
Diskey said textbook companies have been working for the past five to eight years on the technology to transform the industry, but in many cases, schools simply aren’t ready.
“The industry has embraced this, but the difficulty does lie in the fact that schools are not yet fully equipped with the hardware. We hope that they get there soon,” Diskey said.
Many schools lack the broadband capacity or the computers or tablets to adopt the technology, and finding the money to go completely digital is difficult for many schools in tough economic times.
“For some districts who have not prepared for this, a five-year focus could be very ambitious,” Pfeiffer said.
Appleton Xavier High School, for example, spent $80,000 on an existing wireless network and would have to invest even more to gain an infrastructure that would support digital learning, said ACES/Xavier Educational System President Tony Abts.
ACES/Xavier has embarked on a three-year plan to update technology in its schools. Within two years, it plans on having a laptop computer lab for every 100 students in its schools, spend more than $12,000 to replace computer monitors in elementary schools and add Smartboards to classrooms, at a cost of $1,740 each.
Xavier, whose students are being used to research how best to implement technology, will download two digital textbooks each this year, Abts said.
Support of Teachers Critical
School districts worry about the cost and time commitment that will be required to train educators to use the technology effectively.
“A big piece of the success or failure of such an initiative will be the support of classroom teachers,” Appleton’s Steinhilber said. “They need that ongoing professional development because they haven’t been taught in the same way we’re now asking them to teach.”
Pfeiffer said the Neenah school district will provide professional development assistance for teachers to keep laptops and iPads from becoming “glorified notebooks.”
“The most important app we have is our teacher,” Pfeiffer said. “We need to determine how our teachers can balance the use of technology with social integration in classes.”
But for many school districts, there’s an undeniable pressure at both the federal and state level to evolve.
Students can use the textbooks for video explanations to help with homework, they can interact with molecules, and they can manipulate a digital globe to see stories and data about countries, said Karen Cator, director of the Education Department’s office of education technology.
Much of that capability was showcased Jan. 30 in Wisconsin’s Digital Learning Day, sponsored by the state Department of Public Instruction. It offered real-life applications of online and eBook learning in classrooms.
Menasha school district students were featured in the presentation, which included online learning tools such as an interactive chemistry set or trigonometry assignments online.
“When a student reads a textbook and gets to something they don’t know, they are stuck,” Genachowski said. “Working with the same material on a digital textbook, when they get to something they don’t know, the device can let them explore: It can show them what a word means, how to solve a math problem that they couldn’t figure out how to solve.”