Electronic books, or e-books, have changed the way many of us read for pleasure. Now digital text books - educational volumes which are read online - are transforming the way many students learn. The Washington region’s largest school system, with 175,000 students, has begun using online course material for its middle- and high-school students.
History teacher Luke Rosa wheels his cart filled with laptops into a classroom at Falls Church High School in Virginia. He asks his students to look to Chapter 6, Section 1, on Jacksonian America. Rather than using a regular textbook, it's all online.
This school year, Fairfax County Public Schools shifted from hard cover to electronic textbooks for social studies in its middle and high schools. The switch came after digital books were used in 15 schools last year.
“Our students come to us technologically savvy and ready to utilize resources from a variety of different places,” says Assistant Superintendent Peter Noonan, who points to the benefits of electronic textbooks, such as the ability to update content. "The world is changing consistently. The online textbooks can change right along with the events that are happening.”
There's a significant financial benefit as well.
“Usually it is in the neighborhood of between $50 and $70 to buy a textbook for each student," Noonan says, "which adds up to roughly $8 million for all of our students in Fairfax County. We actually have purchased all of the online textbooks for our students for just under $6 million.”
Students have mixed feelings about the switch, but most like it.
“I do not have to carry a textbook around, so that is nice,” says high school student Melanie Reuter.
Fellow student Maria Stephany isn't completely sold on the concept. “I don’t like it because the internet sometimes doesn’t work.”
“You can highlight your work," says high schooler Brian Tran. "You can leave notes on your work and it will all be saved onto your account. It is a lot better than a regular textbook.”
Social studies teacher Michael Bambara thinks so, too.
“Particularly this book, that I use in government, has differentiated reading levels," Bambara says. "So a person can individualize their learning and I can individualize their instruction.”
However, making sure all students have online access outside school remains a challenge. About 10 percent of students in Fairfax County don’t have a computer or online access at home.
Stephen Castillo is one of them, but he makes it work. “Pretty much go to the library, I guess, or go to a friend’s house.”
Besides the public library’s free computer terminals, students can also use the school's after-school computer lab, or go to one of the computer club houses supported by the county.
“All of my family works on a computer, my sister and me both do our homework on it," says Slieman Hakim, a middle school student. "So I come here to do my homework. It is good.”
Neighboring counties are also considering online textbooks. Gladys Whitehead, director of Curriculum of Prince George’s County Public Schools, says its survey shows 60 percent of students have computer access at home.
“Next year we will just have a pilot with probably one classroom and one subject area, so that we can see what issues will come up with complete online access.”
Meanwhile, Peter Noonan foresees a future without traditional textbooks for his young child.
“I envision a future where my third grade son will likely not being carrying five textbooks back and forth between high school and home when he gets there. I think he will be carrying either a tablet or some sort of device that he will be able to access his information on.”
And schools, he says, are taking the first steps in that direction now.