By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Will digital textbooks begin a new chapter of technology in the classroom? Or will they deepen the digital divide between students who are haves and have-nots?
Among teachers, the issue is not exactly an open and shut case.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched his Digital Textbook Initiative last June as a way for schools to help close the budget deficit. Under the initiative, high school students will have access to digital science and math textbooks starting this school year.
Digital textbook content developers submitted materials over the summer to officials at the California Department of Education — as well as teachers with the Learning Resources Network — to make sure they were aligned with the state standards. Of 16 digital textbooks reviewed, 10 met at least 90 percent of state high school math and science standards, according to the governor's office.
While these books are available for free, they have to be downloaded in some form onto computers or printed out by teachers for distribution to students. Various bills are in the pipeline to fund digital textbooks, but have been stalled due to the state's budget crisis.
The average textbook costs $75 to $100. But for students without computers, digital books could be costly. They would require an electronic reader known as a Kindle that costs hundreds of dollars — and then pay nominal fees for downloading through Amazon to access digital textbooks.
CTA's Curriculum and Instruction Committee members have discussed the pros and cons of digital textbooks, and apparently the reviews are mixed.
"It's basically a split decision among members when it comes to digital textbooks," says Nancee Fine, president of the Victor Elementary Teachers Association. "Some of us think it would be a good thing because it's a great way to save money and not have kids with backpacks that weigh 100 pounds. But if students don't have a computer or a Kindle, they won't have access to these textbooks. And teachers will be back to making copies again, which is not cost-effective. With budget cuts, more schools are limiting paper and limiting the numbers of copies teachers can make. So in theory it sounds terrific, but when it comes to practicality, I don't know if we're there yet."
"Every child should have a textbook according to the Williams settlement," says Mary Rose Ortega, a CTA Board member who serves as liaison to the committee. "Does this mean access to digital books on top of regular books? If the governor wants to substitute one for another, is it fair access? Not really."
"Good professional development will be needed for teachers to understand how digital textbooks fit into their classrooms and how to design modules around it," says Daly Jordan-Koch, a teacher at a Title I elementary school and a Vallejo Education Association member who is vice chair of the committee. "Digital textbooks could mean huge changes in terms of traditional ways of running a classroom."
Students who are poor or living in isolated areas would be at the biggest disadvantage, says Ortega. "It's a well-known fact that students in schools located in underserved communities do not have computers and can't gain access to digital text. It's a big problem."
"When it comes to technology, we have the haves and we have the have-nots," says Jordan-Koch. "Many of the homes where my students live don't have computers, and students don't have access to technology. It is not a part of their lives. And schools don't have enough computers for every kid. In my school alone you would need to have more computers to have kids able to read these textbooks."
In times of budgetary cutbacks, says Jordan-Koch, schools are having a difficult time maintaining their technology. And making textbooks dependent upon technology has the potential for many glitches, he says.
"You would definitely need to pump money into building up school infrastructures to be able to run this stuff."
Jordan-Koch, a literacy teacher, thinks that digital textbooks could be helpful for English learners. "It could help them pronounce a word or even read a sentence for them. Technologically, it could enhance their ability to learn words in English and translate words into Spanish — or whatever students' primary language is."
But it could also change the way students learn and teachers teach. Students, for example, typically highlight passages in their textbook with a highlighter when preparing for a test. And teachers may not be prepared to incorporate digital textbooks into their lesson plans and homework assignments without some training.