In Utah's digital shift, students turning the page on traditional textbooks
On a typical day, the only thing ninth-grader Jonah Warnick carries in his backpack is a binder.
That's because at his school, North Davis Junior High in Clearfield, students often use online texts on iPads and netbooks. Textbooks still line classroom shelves, but, to students, they're just one of many resources, not tomes to be pored over every night, hauled back and forth from home.
"I love it," Warnick said. "It's a lot easier to organize stuff. Things are much easier to find."
A shift from traditional textbooks to e-books is gaining speed in Utah, as the state Office of Education coordinates efforts to develop digital texts in science, math and language arts. At least two state math texts are already available and the first of the science texts will be released this summer.
The state texts will be open source, meaning anyone or any school in the state may use them for free.
Proponents say digital textbooks can be cheaper, more up to date and interactive, better suiting the needs of today's tech-savvy learners. Box Elder, Nebo and several Wasatch Front districts, along with a number of charter and other schools, are already using at least some digital texts.
Diana Suddreth, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) coordinator at the state office, said the low cost and adaptability of open-source digital texts make them attractive to Utah educators.
"We really recognize that this is the wave of the future," Suddreth said. "We are moving toward becoming a digital society."
Stretching school dollars • Now, school districts typically buy new textbooks every seven to 10 years for about $80 a piece, Suddreth said. Publishers have started selling digital texts as well.
But schools can use the savings from free open-source textbooks to buy digital devices for students to read them, said David Wiley, an associate professor in instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University who studies innovation as a Shuttleworth Fellow.
Or, he added, schools can print out open-source textbooks at a lower cost than buying traditional texts from publishers.
Wiley studied Utah students during the school years between 2010 and 2012 and found open-source texts can cost less than half as much annually as traditional ones, once he factored in the cost of printing, shipping and modifying them.
Such savings can be particularly useful when teaching science, because the cost of supplies for hands-on learning can directly compete with the cost of textbooks, said Sarah Young, a science specialist at the state office.
The office is leading the development of six open-source, digital science textbooks for seventh grade, eighth grade, biology, Earth science, physics and chemistry.
Finding a lack of materials from major publishers that align with the new Common Core academic standards, adopted in Utah and widely across the country, a number of states are doing the same, Wiley said.
States realize "they can continue to have districts serve as a flow-through mechanism to funnel public money to textbook publishers," Wiley said, "or they can redirect those funds into supporting master teachers and others and pulling together materials that are free."
Beyond the book • Advocates also praise digital materials for being adaptable and easy for kids to use.
"When I grew up, you had a textbook to analyze," said North Davis Junior High geography teacher Jenne Talbot. "The students are so used to Googling and multi-sourcing, for them it's a more familiar method."
Talbot's students use netbooks to access a variety of digital materials. Traditional geography textbooks sat under their desks on a recent day, but students never referred to them and the books remained behind when the bell rang. Instead of providing each student with a textbook, Talbot simply has one classroom set.
"There's a lot more we have access to than just what's in the book," said ninth-grader Anne-Marie Sattler.
Open-source textbooks seem to be effective, according to Wiley's research so far. Substituting them for traditional books did not appear to correlate with any change in student test scores, according to his work published in The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning last June.
In more recent research, he found a small but statistically significant improvement in test scores when students used open-source materials versus traditional textbooks.
Too early, yet inevitable? • Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, wanted to push Utah schools to start moving toward digital textbooks this year.
But he later softened a bill he ran this past session, dropping a mandate and merely asking districts and schools to annually review how they might go digital.
The bill, however, failed in committee amid concerns that it might be too soon, given that not all students have Internet access at home and not all schools have enough devices for each student.
Some schools that have tried to switch have already experienced some hurdles. At North Davis Junior High, for example, the school sent netbooks home with kids for the first couple of years of its program. But because of wear and tear and a lack of funding to buy enough devices for everyone, they now stay at school, said Principal Ryan Hansen. About one-fourth of the school's devices had to undergo repairs last school year, he said.
And as much as students like the ease of learning online, many feared damaging the netbooks and iPads when they could take them home.
Ninth-grader M. Clint Bisbee paid the dreaded $80 fee last year when he dropped his netbook, damaging it. He said it's less nerve-wracking just to leave devices at school.
Still, many in the state are striving to overcome such challenges. Kenneth Grover, principal at Salt Lake City's Innovations High, allows kids to check out laptops to access the school's digital curriculum at home. North Davis Junior High also has a program to provide home computers to low-income kids, and the school leaves its computer lab and library open each afternoon after the bell rings. Also, Comcast offers a program that allows many low-income Utah parents to get Internet service for $9.95 a month.
Anderegg believes a switch from traditional textbooks to digital ones is inevitable.
"I don't think it's going to take very long," Anderegg said. "I think we've got a decade at best."