Calif. District Pushes Digital-Text Initiative Forward

By Katie Ash — February 04, 2011 9 min read

Jackie Davis asked his California middle school students to tackle the sample math problem in their digital textbooks during a recent lesson about solving a system of linear equations. The teacher’s request prompted the students to turn to their iPads, scroll to the problem in the e-textbook, and begin tapping notes on the screen.

At Amelia Earhart Middle School, where Davis teaches, two classes of Algebra 1 students are now accessing textbooks on iPads through a partnership with the educational publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

He is one of hundreds of teachers in the 44,000-student Riverside Unified School District, located 60 miles east of Los Angeles, who are using digital devices to provide content to students through e-textbooks. And Riverside was the first school system in the state to adopt and implement the use of digital textbooks, following then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s announcement of the Free Digital Textbook Initiative, launched in May 2009.

Students in Davis’ class access the textbook through an application that sits on the iPad’s desktop. When they tap on the app with a finger, the textbook opens up on the full screen. But instead of a simple replication of the text, the Algebra 1 app includes videos, the ability to take notes or record audio notes, equations broken down step by step, and sample problems that give students instant feedback on their progress.

The digital-textbook initiative in the Riverside schools is one example of the pockets of innovative digital-textbook use in K-12 schools around the country. But the reality, in most places, is that schools are struggling to find the money to build the infrastructure to support digital textbooks and provide students with the tools they need to access the materials.

What’s more, schools must secure the political support needed to change long-established policies around textbook adoption that are seen as barriers to the use of e-textbooks. And, beyond those policy barriers, many educators and students still say that a printed textbook is a better teaching and learning tool for them than a digital one for a variety of reasons, a perspective that some experts say should not be discounted.

But that is not Jackie Davis’ perspective. Having immediate feedback on sample problems and the ability to access online resources, such as instructional videos embedded in the textbook, offers great educational value, he says. Since introducing the iPads in his classroom in September, he has noticed an uptick in the level of student engagement in academic material.

“Kids who weren’t taking any notes in class suddenly started taking notes,” he says.

Gillian Washington, 13, one of Davis’ students, says the videos on the app are especially useful. “They break it down into steps, and it helps me,” she says.

The “view in motion” problems allow students to see problems step by step; they drag a finger down the page to reveal more steps.

Kyle Girard, 14, says that capability is what he enjoys most about the Algebra 1 app used in Davis’ class. “It just breaks [the problem] down so I can go at my own speed,” he says. “I don’t have to go at the teacher’s speed.”

‘Kids Are Our Customers’

Elsewhere in the Riverside district, as part of an effort to increase parent communication, expand learning time, and eliminate the digital divide between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, all students at Central Middle School have netbooks loaded with digital textbooks.

Students at Amelia Earhart Middle School in Riverside, Calif., are using iPads to read digital textbooks. The Riverside district was the first school system in the state to adopt and implement e-textbooks.

“The 1-to-1 [computing] model is really increasing learning time,” says Pablo Sanchez, the principal of the school, where 72 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. “That’s where we’re going to see this program increasing achievement.”

Saul Villa, 14, an 8th grader at Central, says the netbook he received at school is the first computer he’s ever had. Becoming more familiar with the technology and being able to share it with his family at home helps him learn more each day, he says.

Shay Sun, an 8th grade language arts teacher at Central, says the real power of the netbooks doesn’t come from the e-textbooks on them, which are essentially PDFs of the text. Rather, it is the access to the Internet that matters most, he says. Sun uses Google docs, which allow users to create Web-based documents and share them, to share information with his students and encourage them to collaborate.

Access to the Internet is a high priority at Martin Luther King High School. It is one of the schools in the Riverside district that is following an “open access” philosophy that lets students bring their own devices to connect to the schools’ wireless networks. Although King High is not currently using digital textbooks, the open-access infrastructure is one significant step toward making that a reality, according to school officials.

For that reason, it’s important that the online content the school uses be device-agnostic, says Jay F. McPhail, the director of instructional technology for the district.

Being device-agnostic would allow the district to pilot many different types of e-books. The district has accessed digital textbooks on iPads, netbooks, and laptops, as well as through the Intelligent Papers platform, a touch device that supports digital textbooks created by a company based in Palo Alto, Calif.

“We don’t care what the device is, just that the resources are in a format that makes sense [to the students],” McPhail says. “The kids are our customers.”

That mindset of thinking of the students as customers is what has largely driven Riverside’s digital-textbook and open-access initiatives, as well as the push to put more netbooks and other devices into the hands of students.

In the past, the district spent millions of dollars equipping classrooms with technologies like interactive whiteboards, projectors, and computers for teachers without seeing any real gains in student achievement, McPhail says.

Overall, the numerous digital-textbook and other technology initiatives in the district have been widely embraced, Superintendent Rick Miller says.

Miller suggests that part of the district’s success in moving the use of digital textbooks forward was that it did not mandate their use. The district asked for teacher volunteers rather than pushing a policy from the top down.

“We have to start challenging long-held assumptions,” Miller says. “We’ve made incredible efforts to modify the existing system, but at the end of the day, the existing system is still the existing system.”

Customizing Content

The challenge of changing how K-12 textbooks are adopted and purchased is one reason why most digital-textbook publishers work primarily with higher education institutions rather than public school districts, says David Lindrum, the founder and chief executive officer of the Asheville, N.C.-based Soomo Publishing, which creates digital textbooks for college students.

“When you think about what textbooks are supposed to do—get students excited about class, give them an authoritative reference, make sure students can fall back on solid material—all of those things are not accomplished with an objective, authoritative voice on the page. What the students need is a whole lot more affordable and a whole lot more engaging content,” he says.

Just two examples of the potential power of digital textbooks, Lindrum says, are that they could pull information from the Internet to personalize the experience for the student and could give feedback on student progress.

“It’s not about digitizing a textbook as it exists now,” he says, but using technology to improve the learning experience.

That potential customization of textbooks for students is one reason why Thomas Adams, a high school history teacher in the 16,000-student Indian River County school system in Vero Beach, Fla., got in touch with Soomo about using the company’s digital textbook Comparing Governments in his Advanced Placement class.

“The nice thing about their materials is I can modify and tailor them to what I want to do,” Adams says. “And this being a comparative-politics class, current events is huge. As soon as you print a textbook, it’s out of date. This way, we can keep it as current and informative as possible.”

Each chapter includes online assignments, and Adams has supplemented the textbook with other links and resources, he says.

David Straus, the vice president of products for Kno, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based creator of a tablet computing device that opens like a book, says his company, which supports digital textbooks from numerous publishers, mostly works with higher education students.

The company’s Web-enabled device is equipped to take notes, highlight passages, and record audio notes. The device also has a built-in dictionary and calendar.

“In K-12, using a digital device to read textbooks is not a decision that an individual student can make,” Straus says. He says he receives inquiries daily, however, about the product from K-12 teachers.

“There is a lot of interest and a lot of demand,” he says. “They want to see us moving in this direction.”

Major Challenges

One company that believes the K-12 digital-textbook market is worth investigating is Bookbyte, a Salem, Ore.-based buyer and seller of used printed textbooks.

Bookbyte has launched a handful of pilot programs to determine how to “enhance the learning experience and the economic value [of textbooks] to the schools,” says Andres Montgomery, the chief strategy officer for the company.

It has rolled out iPads to several classrooms in Oregon’s 40,000-student Salem-Keizer school district to see how teachers and students use them and what they would like to see in a digital textbook.

Kim Miller, an English teacher at South Salem High School, received a classroom set of iPads through a Bookbyte pilot program.

“I wish my kids could have their biology books and history books and everything on here,” she says. As of now, only one of her classes uses a textbook on the iPad. The rest of her classes use the iPad to access individual texts—novels, plays, and short stories—through iBooks and Kindle Books apps.

Although her students are not allowed to take the iPads outside the classroom, using a mobile device has the potential to extend learning opportunities throughout the day, she says.

“They’re so easy to manipulate and use, and the students are pretty universally excited by them and like using them, so I would love to see education go in this way,” Miller says. “But the current economics of school districts mean we’re a long way from being able to afford it.”

Even being able to secure the infrastructure, like wireless Internet, to use the devices in class has been a challenge, the teacher says.

Indeed, infrastructure is one of the main obstacles to breaking into the K-12 market, says William Chesser, the vice president of sales for VitalSource, a Raleigh, N.C.-based provider of digital textbooks.

“Just getting the cables in the buildings, and the laptops in the students’ hands, and the bandwidth in the wireless networks” is a major challenge, says Chesser.

In addition, the textbook-adoption cycle can be an obstacle for digital-textbook providers.

“The adoption process is a real burden,” Chesser says. “There are some states that adopt their textbooks on a 10-year cycle.”

He observes, though, that digital textbooks have moved forward fast in higher education over the past two years, and he predicts that K-12 will eventually follow.

“It’s not going to happen by a few teachers or principals here or there,” says Chesser. “It’s going to take a governor picking up the phone and calling his director of textbook procurement and saying, ‘We are going to do business differently.’ ”

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