Professional Learning

Textbooks Go Electronic

The next generation of schoolbooks aren’t books at all.

October 19, 2006

"Once upon a time," your children may one day tell their own kids, "parents complained about the weight of their children's schoolbags. Hunchbacked students stared at the concrete as they trudged to school. Many were even forced to drag backpacks on wheels, like little airline stewards. Until one day, someone had a bright idea . . ."

In Seattle, across the state of Utah, and in a few other places, backpacks have already started to get lighter. Physics and chemistry classes are turning to what could be called e-books, if that term didn't sound so dusty and old fashioned. Companies such as Kinetic Books and Trivedi Technology Innovations International are developing full, course-long, computer-based text "books" that require little more than access to a computer and, in some cases, regular Internet access. The digital format allows students to interact with the material, conduct computer-based experiments, and move at their own speed. And, attention, teachers: The digital textbooks even automate homework, saving hours of grading time.

"These days, I will lecture twenty minutes out of the fifty-minute class period and go over the basic topics and demonstrations, then they will get on the computer and start taking more notes from the textbook," says Ken Tong, a physics teacher at Seattle's Ballard High School. The textbook he describes, which retails for $29, comes from Seattle-based Kinetic Books and combines a complete course's worth of instructional text, with hundreds of simulations, game-like exercises, and assessment tools. Tong is lucky enough to have twenty computers in his classroom; still, he often puts two students to a computer and says many students work better in groups.

"They can help each other," he says, "and I can see in one glance if anybody's off task; I can check on them. And while the students work at their computers, I'm free, so I can go visit with them and help them."

"I don't think the classic situation where the teacher stands up at the chalkboard and lectures is where a lot of teachers want to be these days," says Bruce Jacobsen, CEO of Kinetic Books. Jacobsen first began developing the physics program as a volunteer at a public school where teachers lacked the resources to involve their students in interactive physics experiments. He began developing small animations to help students visualize the forces they were studying, and eventually developed those exercises into a complete curriculum. The goal, he says, is to make learning environments more dynamic.

"We want students working in teams," he continues. "They can try sample problems the night before and then present their solutions in the class. It's a classroom environment where they're leading the charge and the teacher is guiding that learning."

From Tong's perspective, perhaps the most welcome change takes place once class is over. The Kinetic Books program includes homework that students do online and submit electronically to their teacher. The assignments are graded instantly -- kids can see how they did, and take another try. Instead of poring over a stack of papers, Tong reviews a printout showing how each student did and how many times he or she tried.

"I teach anywhere between 120 to 150 physics students per year," says Tong. "That's four or five classes -- so you can imagine going through 150 kids's homework. In the old days, we stayed up to midnight looking at the same mistakes over and over again." To discourage cheating, he asks students to keep notebooks recording how they tried to answer problems. Even with the occasional review of those notebooks, Tong says, the online homework is a terrific timesaver.

With any new classroom technology, the greatest obstacle is often making sure students have the tools they need. But if Tong's class is any indication, the digital divide may be narrowing: Even in a school where 50 percent of kids are on the free-lunch program, he says, almost everyone has a computer at home. For those who don't, the school provides loaners. Tong gives his students a few days to complete their assignments and unlimited access to the online computers in the classroom. And if getting online is still a problem, Tong adds, there's always the library.

Use of these digital books is still limited (Kinetic Books, funded by a Florida venture capital firm, doesn't disclose how many schools are enrolled in its program), but Jacobsen and his team are working hard to reach more teachers and students. That's not easy, he says. "Our major competition is probably inertia. Teachers are very busy. I'm married to one; they're asked to do a lot. So, if they have a text they've been using for ten years, they have to ask themselves whether it is worth the time to take a look up from their current way of doing business."

Teachers may also wonder whether their students really need to be spending another hour a day -- or four, including homework -- staring at a screen. But conversations with Tong's physics students suggest it's a little late for those concerns. "I am online a lot," says a high school senior named Christabel. "I'm in love with my computer, I must say."

Whether it's for their novelty or their interactivity, Christabel and her classmates much prefer the digital textbooks. "I have a really short attention span," she says, "so textbooks don't work out so well. Those pages of boring text -- it's not interactive enough."

Still, neither Christabel, her teacher, nor Jacobsen see digital textbooks supplanting paper ones altogether anytime soon. For one thing, Jacobsen says, developing a DVD textbook is an enormous project, and not one the traditional textbook publishers seem to be pursuing. In addition, the digital interface lends itself particularly well to subjects that benefit from illustration, particularly animation, and the ability to interact with information -- math and science, for instance. Sure, you could put The Scarlet Pimpernel on a DVD, but would it be worth it?

And even Christabel, who spends most of her time happily glued to her computer -- and who is also an avid fiction reader -- says she likes the feeling and portability of a paper book. Would she miss books if they disappeared entirely? "Yes," says Christabel, "I would."

Amy Standen is a former contributing editor to Edutopia. She reports on science and the environment for KQED-FM, in San Francisco.

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