You've heard the hype, but are online textbooks coming to a computer near you anytime soon?
Find out what these districts have learned
You've seen it.
Students walking through school hallways, nearly slumped over from the immense weight on their backs. It's nearly a crime.
We're talking about students carrying 1,000-page textbooks in backpacks. Many students often get bored when they open such books. Sometimes, textbooks just don't carry their own weight.
And at least one researcher says textbooks are filled with wrong information-not good when molding young, impressionable minds. According to research conducted by John L. Hubisz, a visiting professor for physics at North Carolina State University, science textbooks in particular carry numerous inaccuracies. He also adds that many textbooks pile too much information on a page, including graphs that children "don't know how to read that well." And students get most turned off to science in middle school.
While Hubisz favors hard textbooks over computerized versions, he admits that online textbooks, which are quietly entering the school landscape, "would likely have the same sort of errors, but would be more easily corrected."
Some teachers already using online textbooks say that while it's too early to tell what the academic gains will be, their kids are anything but bored.
"Textbooks are probably the most boring thing in the world, for adults, too," says Joe Greene, a seventh-grade English teacher at Memorial Junior High School in Hanover Township Public School district in Whippany, N.J. He uses Barrett Kendall Publishing's online textbooks. "To make a textbook attractive they've gone online and they've added bells and whistles the kids are used to."
Greene says the difference lies in the enthusiasm for learning.
"This is a computer generation. A written page just kind of lays there. ... And one of the comments I hear from kids is, 'I'm more inclined to go on a computer to do my homework first instead of first IM'ing [Instant Messaging] my friends.' "
"It's more of an 'Oh my goodness, a textbook online!' response," says Kathaleen Vamos, world history instructor at East Allegheny High School in North Versailles, Pa.
Just last fall, her district started using Holt, Rinehart and Winston's online world history and social studies books, along with English and math books for grades 7-12, at the same cost as a printed textbook and instructional materials. "It's something new to them and the graphics in the book relate to the material they're actually reading," Vamos says. "I remember using other books that had graphics on a page, and they had nothing to do with what was on that page. That doesn't help them."
Heather Kight, Holt's marketing manager for social studies, agrees students are more excited. "What we hear from teachers is that the students are turned on. I look at my own children and for my seventh grader ... if someone asks her to do an assignment with a pen and paper compared to if she is asked to do the same assignment on a computer she does it with twice as much enthusiasm and half the complaining."
Digital Divide Continues
But many educators warn that online textbooks, which also include Prentice Hall School Group's interactive textbooks in English and science, bring out a nagging concern in American schools-the digital divide.
"Our main concern with online textbooks is still access for students to that information," says Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at Plano (Texas) Independent School District and a member of the Western States Benchmarking Consortium. The consortium is a group of superintendents and other key executives from large, Western U.S. school districts who discuss best practices and strategies to improve education. "Like it or not, backpacks have gotten heavier. But students can still have it when they need it, where they need it."
Even in Plano, Hirsch says, the student-to-computer ratio is 2.5 to 1, and that's still not enough to warrant online textbooks in his district. In addition, 15 percent of Plano students don't have computer access at home, he says.
But Bob Moore, another member of the consortium and executive director for IT services at the Blue Valley (Kan.) School District, says while his district doesn't use online textbooks, they could become popular if they match a district's needs. While he agrees the digital divide plays a big role, he says textbooks themselves are becoming less vital. "Look at the teaching trends. The classroom is much less textbook-driven. A textbook is something to be referred to, rather than having it used day in and day out. ... The likely biggest challenge to online textbooks is us adults. We're more used to reading on paper. For students it's not going to be a challenge."
Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, worries about the digital divide, but he notes that online textbooks allow students to jump to related Web sites for more information. NSTA already offers SciLinks, a partnership between textbook publishers and the NSTA. It offers Web site interactive activities to supplement science programs. More than 33,500 students are registered to use SciLinks.
But Wheeler says online textbooks books will likely warrant more professional development so teachers know how to use them.
Sacred Snow Day Over
Sandy Blevins, chief content officer for Barrett Kendall Publishing, says the company initially came out with two online textbooks, Grammar and Composition, for grades 6-12 in 2000, but they were implemented in the fall of 2001. The textbooks are most popular in Texas, Florida, Indiana and West Virginia, she says. The printed and online version costs $45 per student for both books.
The online book is "really not accepted" without a printed book to go along with it, Blevins says. Textbooks are usually left in school lockers, while students use the online version at home. If students are ill or have snow days, they could still do work from home and hand in their assignments via e-mail. "The sacred snow day is over," she says.
And students have access to links for background information, she says. Students just need a password to log-in. "It gives the book depth," Blevins says. "Kids get bored with the same old textbook, fact after fact."
She adds that the books come with corrections, which printed versions can't. The books also come with a teacher management system that includes a grade book so every grade is weighed and averaged for the teacher. Teachers could also open their class page and see who did and didn't do homework, Blevins says.
More Chances to Write
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, which is part of the Harcourt Educational Group, launched its online textbooks this fall. It offers Elements of Language (which was introduced a year ago) and middle and high school science, biology, chemistry and physics, as well as middle and high school American history, middle school world studies, and high school geography, civics, and world history, which were all launched this fall. More titles are scheduled for release next spring.
All textbooks are the same price as the corresponding printed book, ranging from $40 to $60.
Kight says the social studies textbook is $55 to $60 per student, in addition to a minimal fee for student access. "One reason [for the online version] was to meet the needs of teachers who are trying to figure out how to incorporate technology in their classrooms," Kight says.
For awhile, the company produced CD-ROM's, but constant changes in the information were time-consuming and costly, Kight says. The company then used Internet activities to go along with regular classroom work. Then the company came up with templates to create newspapers, journals or postcards and interactive worksheets, interactive maps and blank maps in which to drag items.
The company finally went to online textbooks. "In formatting the book, if you're going to have a book online we wanted students to go back and forth between the hard text and online so it was interchangeable," she says. "The difference is that the students could complete an assignment, answer questions, and interact with the text while reading it."
Kight says online textbooks give a poor writer more chances to write or answer questions. Throughout a chapter, the online version includes icons to click on, including "Answer in Notebook" or "Get Journal," which keep students writing. "In some ways, the online textbook is encouraging students to interact more," she says.
Kight sees online textbooks becoming a trend. "Our ultimate goal is having students acquire information and loving the content," she says.
Out With the Old
In Pennsylvania Vamos says her district started using online textbooks this year after realizing former social studies textbooks contained 12-year-old information and psychology textbooks dated back to 1983. "We chose Holt because it was more current," says Vamos, who teaches 10th grade world history and 11th and 12th grade psychology. "They also were the only book publisher that had Sept. 11 [terrorist attacks] in the books. ... I think [that's important] because that is going to be a pivotal issue in world history for kids. People will always remember where they were Sept. 11."
Vamos uses the Psychology Principles in Practice textbook for psychology classes. Because students don't have one-to-one access to computers, Vamos says they go online at home and use the hard textbooks in school.
But there are still some students who don't have computers at home and either use her computer in class or go to the library or computer lab to use the online version. In one lesson example, students study the great Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II, online. And the assignment has students write an essay about whether or not he deserves the title, 'Ramses the Great.'
In another lesson, Vamos had students go to www.neferchichi.com, which is a site on ancient Egypt, where students can learn how to mummify an apple to writing hieroglyphics. When students draw hieroglyphics they realize such an art is a "long process."
Psychology students use online books in part to practice tests or homework, which are in the online version. Vamos says one student increased his test score from 63 to 86 in one section. "He was able to see it [his mistakes] and relate," she says. "It's done at their own pace."
Power of Sound
Greene says he and two other teachers discovered Barrett Kendall online books at a national conference. They were looking for a new textbook and had just received classroom computers. "It was a great marriage," Greene says. "We liked the concept. It's not just a textbook, but it also includes a teacher's gradebook, a testing program and it has Web links to go to. It supplements some of the reading. We liked all that."
And half the English textbook revolves around teaching writing, he says, which is key.
His language arts classroom has 10 computers, so while some students use computers in class, some use the printed books in class and finish their work on their home computers.
"A lot of homework is e-mailed right to us, so it's faster and more efficient," he says. Greene says he allows students 48 hours to do online assignments in case of glitches with home computers or connections.
If Greene gives an English test in computer lab, the online textbook will automatically score the test and send it to his grade book. "And kids get immediate feedback as soon as they click on it," Greene says.
If students are reading about Civil War battles, they could also go to a link related to the lesson. Greene also notes how the online version allows students to actually hear President John F. Kennedy's speech on the U.S.' goal to get the first man into space. They can hear a Maya Angelou poem read to them-a lesson in persuasive speaking, he says.
"They liked [Pres. Kennedy's] Boston accent," Greene says. "They thought it was persuasive in hearing someone speak, rather than just read about it. It's a whole new dynamic."
And Greene says students are writing better with online textbooks. "They're more into writing as a process," he says. "They could revise their writing more readily. It's easier to revise."
"I would tell teachers it's certainly the wave of the future," he adds. "It actually makes your job easier. Some tests and quizzes are graded automatically. And kids buy into it a lot faster than regular textbooks."
Angela Pascopella, email@example.com, is features editor.