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School district ditching books to solve shortage
A Digital Solution

With an estimated shortage of 600 textbooks for the 2004-05 school year, a North Texas school began issuing laptops with electronic textbooks to some students in fall 2004. The idea is to begin phasing out their hardcover counterparts.

"It's my belief that it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when we go to electronic textbooks," said Mike Smith, Forney Independent School District (FISD) superintendent. "The current system of providing textbooks is very antiquated."

Under the current system, schools order textbooks based on enrollment projections. But projections are frequently inaccurate, Smith said. Actual enrollment figures aren't verified until the second day of school in Forney, a fast-growing suburb east of Dallas. Classes for 2004-05 in Forney began on August 18, 2004.

"Logically, there is no way they can get textbooks here before August 1st [with] printing, shipping and distributing," Smith said.

And if actual enrollment exceeds the number of books delivered?

"[Publishers] don't have surplus textbooks sitting in the warehouse," he said.

In previous school years, Forney students have gone up to six weeks before receiving their textbooks. Not wanting to face this dilemma again, Smith worked with IBM to buy laptops bundled with the state-approved textbooks, lessons, homework and more than 2,000 works of literature.

A brighter future
Instead of issuing textbooks during the first day of school, administrators envisioned checking out laptops to each of Johnson Elementary's fifth- and sixth-graders with all of their textbooks and an entire year's curriculum with lessons already on them. Students would be able to work at their own pace and reference past lessons easily if they had any problems.

When Forney began the program in the 2004-05 school year, however, only five of the eight textbooks required for the program were on the laptops. The school district was unable to get the remaining three in an electronic format from the publisher and had to order hardcover textbooks, Smith said.

"Our biggest hang-up is getting publishers to work with us to provide the electronic textbooks," he said. "That's really the biggest technology problem we're having."

The State Board of Education (SBOE) approves a list of textbooks that school districts can adopt statewide, and textbooks not on the approved list must receive SBOE approval.

"If a textbook's adopted today, it's essentially been written for three years," Smith said. "These current adoptions are five years old. Nobody was even thinking about this conversation five years ago. [The textbooks] don't really exist in a distributable form electronically."

Many textbook suppliers do have online versions available but are hesitant to issue the books in an electronic format if newer versions are going to be adopted within a few years, said Smith. But online versions are not good enough for this program.

"If you've got one kid that doesn't have [the] Internet at home, then you can't do that," Smith said. "You've got to be able to provide it for every child. At my house, all we've got is dial-up Internet connection. So if my kid wants a social studies textbook, he better start downloading it today to use tomorrow."

Online versions of textbooks also face another hurdle when families have more than one child using the Internet at home for school.

"Most of our families don't have just one student, but most of them only have one access point at home for the Internet," said Roger Geiger, the FISD technology director. "So if you have two or three children at home, what are the other two doing while the one is online? They can't do anything."

A smarter work force
When former third-grade teacher Kristin Pearson was asked to join the experimental program and teach sixth-grade math, she was hesitant. After hearing more about the program, she couldn't turn it down. Her concerns over teaching math with the technology soon subsided.

"Every day we're learning more and we're doing more and we're comfortable," she said. "I do not have to be an expert on every aspect of every software that could possibly be on that computer. I just needed to know what I was going to be working [on with] the kids as far as the basic information and then let them explore because they learn more that way.

"They get there, they do all the bells and whistles, and then they show me and they show each other. They're learning from each other, too."

Johnson Elementary fifth- and sixth-graders are learning a few new skills in addition to the state-required curriculum.

"They can open e-mail, send e-mail, add attachments; they know how to do PowerPoint and give a presentation," Pearson said. "We're not just talking about a few of the sixth-graders that are ready; all of them. Every one of them that I teach can do what most employers would expect their beginning employees to be able to do as far as the technology is concerned in a job."

At $1,000 a laptop, Forney's program is expensive, acknowledges Smith, but creating an adequately prepared work force is important in driving the future economy.

"I'm not saying it's inexpensive, but if that's really what we're dealing with and that's really where we're trying to go, and that's what's going to drive the economy, then it's pretty cheap, really," he said. "Our purpose is to educate children, not save money."

All systems go
With one semester of the program under the district's belt, the response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Forney administrators. Parent surveys conducted throughout the semester show the district's parents support a program that is better preparing their children for the future and the workplace, Geiger said.

Geiger attributes the program's success to integrating the computers and technology into the student's everyday activities.

"They have to learn how to do these things in order to do what they do all day," he said.

Pearson said it also helps that each student has his or her own laptop, instead of sharing lab computers.

"What I'm able to do with these students as sixth-graders can carry so much further than what the normal sixth-grade classroom can do because we have so many tools and resources just right there," Pearson said. "We don't have to wait and schedule a time in the computer lab and then finish the lesson. We do it right then."

Smith plans to extend the pilot program to all fifth- and sixth-graders in the district for the 2005-06 school year, and then eventually to all junior highs and high schools. Smith anticipates an easier time with junior high and high school books because most of them are already in an electronic format. But he'll continue to press the textbook publishers for all books in all grade levels to be converted in the near future.

"[With] handwritten papers and posters, we are not adequately preparing students to walk around on a college campus and do things electronically," Smith said. "Everything we don't do to prepare them for that opportunity hurts them."

Ann Holdsworth