Digital resources are becoming as mainstream as printed textbooks, but some Kentucky educators say it’s not as simple as digital devices replacing textbooks.
Kathy Mansfield, library media/textbooks consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education, said when a school or district is deciding what resources to use, “the guiding principle for instructional resources should be alignment to the state standards and quality of the product, not necessarily whether the product is digital or print.”
“Digital is not the end-all, be-all,” Mansfield said. “It’s choosing the type of access to instructional content that will best meet the needs of students you’re working with. And in some cases that’s going to be print. In many cases, it will be digital.”
One school district making the conversion to a more digital environment is Shelby County.
“We think we have a moral obligation to let kids learn that way,” said Dr. James Neihof, Shelby County’s superintendent. “We’re not the only people who are thinking that way.”
The district purchased 2,200 Chromebooks to distribute to its students at Shelby County and Martha Layne Collins high schools. By 2017, all students in the district will have a digital device as Shelby County moves to fewer printed textbooks.
Eddie Oakley, Shelby County Schools’ chief operations officer, looks at one of the district’s
2,200 Chromebooks, which will be distributed to its high school students by the first
week of October. “Cost is always going to be a factor in anything that you do,” Oakley said.
“... We’re trying to get the most out of our dollar.”
“What we’re finding is that if you print a textbook, even if it was printed based on yesterday’s information, by the time it hits the student’s hands some of it can be outdated and not up to date,” said Chief Academic Officer Lisa Smith. “With digital textbooks what we’re seeing, it’s that being able to access it electronically anywhere, anytime, it can be updated at anytime, and so it’s going to be more real-world application to how we learn and we want information.”
Smith said people might think direct instruction or hands-on activities will be eliminated by going digital.
“There are some pieces of instruction that will always be hands-on doing things in the classroom,” Smith explained. “So really it’s about how does the technology support instruction and if it’s the right tool, then we use it. If it’s not the right tool, then we don’t use it.”
Trigg County High School Principal Shannon Burcham cautioned that technology is not the answer for every student.
“But it can help facilitate instruction in different ways for every student. But there’s still a need for direct instruction, there’s still a need for person to person, and when kids have different learning styles what this does is opens up the opportunity for them to have more ways of learning,” he said.
Trigg County has phased in Chromebooks to its students with the past three freshman classes. In 2016-17, all of its high school students will have one.
Burcham said 31 percent of his staff use all-digital resources in their classrooms while 65 percent use a blend of digital and text. Cost is one of the reasons the school is going that route.
“Our most recent purchase was a set of math textbooks. We bought a new set when the Common Core came out just a few years ago. That’s about $90 a book maybe, I’m just ballparking $90-$100 a text,” he said. “So you do that times 200 and there’s $20,000, and that’s going to change in terms of you’ve got cycles of adoption.
“We can make those purchases but we’d rather put it into the technology and have teachers utilize resources they can construct, that they can use.”
It’s also not necessarily the case that digital textbooks are more cost effective.
“I’ve heard folks say ‘If schools would go completely digital for instructional resources, they’ll save tons of money or not have to spend any money at all,” Mansfield said. “Certainly there can be an aspect of cost effectiveness with moving toward digital. However, districts must provide devices to access those resources, ongoing technical support and certainly training for teachers and students and even parents.”
Shelby County’s Chromebooks were $277 apiece. The district also purchased 2,200 protective sleeves at $22.95 each.
Smith said the district is in the process of researching some of the costs for the digital textbooks.
“A high school text for an (Advanced Placement) course might be $110. What we’re seeing initially with some of the vendors we’ve looked at is that you may have a fee per student that is as little as $20 for the use of that text for six years. So looking at it cost effectively, that would be a better purchase, especially if the curriculum or the information in there is constantly being updated.”
“With the digital versions that we’re looking at,” added Susan Dugle, Shelby County’s director of curriculum personalization, “the teacher has the choice to how to put content together in meaningful ways for kids based on who the kids are and what the kids need and what they’re interested in. It kind of connects better that way.”
Also at the forefront in the print vs. digital debate is the idea that today’s students are digital natives and their familiarity with technology will assist in the learning process. But not everyone buys that.
“The kids are more familiar with the devices because they’ve been around them obviously more than people that are older and didn’t have those devices when they were younger, but it doesn’t mean they know how to find information or how to use the tools in the best way,” said James Allen, a school librarian at Eminence Independent. “I think librarians and teachers are still important to show kids how they can use those tools, evaluate information they find online, and tell what’s kind of junk and not, and using that information to create their own stuff.”
Allen, who is in his first year at Eminence after working at Oldham County High School, was one of 100 educators in the nation and one of four in Kentucky named 2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovators. He said a clear benefit of digital textbooks is the ease of access.
“You’re spending less time looking for the information and spending more time actually working with it and reading it and talking about it, discussing it in your class,” he said.
“It’s definitely not going to replace printed books,” Allen added. “It’s just going to enhance what the students have access to, and the speed in which they can retrieve those resources.”
Shelby County’s Public Relations Coordinator Ryan Allan said it’s important to distinguish between substituting and augmenting when transitioning to a digital platform.
“If we were to just take a physical textbook out of a kid’s hand and replace it with a digital textbook, all we’ve done is substituted a piece of technology for the same type thing,” Allan said. “However, if we can get a textbook that’s live, that’s updating constantly, that augments … how a student learns, it changes the idea of just sticking a computer in a kid’s hand to creating a tool that students use to learn.”
David Cook, KDE’s director of Innovation and Partner Engagement, says he doesn’t foresee any school system completely ditching traditional textbooks in favor of digital, but the use of technology is increasing and, in some classrooms, “it is the norm.”
“The truth is, we could interview students in any school district in the state and some of them would say they prefer traditional books and resources,” Cook said. “Just as I have friends who would prefer buying a novel rather than use an eReader.
“The best classrooms are where the teacher uses the textbook as a foundation document but most of the instructional resource is other material.”
Board View: Grandparents, parents also need training
School districts across the state and country are expanding their use of digital textbooks. While teachers and students are rapidly learning how to use the technology, Shelby County school board Vice Chairman Allen Phillips said there is another demographic that also needs to be educated.
“There’s got to be an ongoing training on the part of our district to get those grandmothers that’s raising these children that’s not up on the computer edge of it and they’re still wondering why a kid doesn’t bring a book home,” Phillips said. “We’re going to do an across-the-board canvass of giving as many familiarizing workshops as we can for parents to come in.”
Shelby County purchased 2,200 Chromebooks to distribute to its students at Shelby County and Martha Layne Collins high schools. The district plans to add digital devices to all of its middle school students next year and all of its elementary students the following year.
“This will be far different than what you and I had when we went to school,” Phillips added. “That’s where I think a lot of our older parents and grandparents, they’re still talking about we want to honor the past but we gotta look to the future for a brighter way.”
Phillips, a member of KSBA’s board, said schools need to make sure that the money being allocated for learning materials won’t be “catching dust on a shelf” in two years.
“The thing of it is, anytime you’re talking about technology, you know it and I know it, what’s here today will be changed tomorrow and the next year and the next year,” Phillips said.
He added going digital will also lighten the load on student backpacks.
“Some of these kids have got three or four big binders with them full of information from different classes,” he said. “It’s a load on the kids’ backs.”