As legislators in Florida gather this month in Tallahassee, they have a unique opportunity to empower our students with technology that will enhance their education. Our legislators have the capacity to provide students with digital content at a fraction of the cost of traditional textbooks.
Under Florida law, as in other states, school districts are forced to pay high prices for traditional paper and print materials because of antiquated legislation that favors textbook publishers. School districts are required to purchase materials every five years, within two years of adoption. Traditional textbooks are expensive, costly to transport and replace, and include content that often becomes obsolete or outdated during its mandated adoption period.
Content for Digital Natives
Digital content, however, can be almost immediately updated to reflect new scientific discoveries, unfolding political events, or changing world dynamics. More importantly, it is the medium by which the youth of today communicate and create. While districts can already opt to purchase digital materials, this requirement forces them to purchase materials and/or licenses whether or not they are needed. School districts must also commit to a five-year term of engagement. These laws cost Miami-Dade as much as $26 million annually, when digital content could be provided to students at a much lower cost.
Of course, students will need the platform to see this digital content, but new technology is constantly lowering the cost of devices, and a good chunk of the funding now going to textbooks could be redirected to technology. Under current law, instructional materials funds cannot be used to purchase hardware. While the state funded Instructional Materials Categorical Program in and of itself will not be sufficient to make the initial transition to digital, flexibility to use the funds for student devices will be necessary to sustain this mode of delivery. Funds could also be made available not just to support this digital textbook conversion but to provide updated presentation stations in classrooms as well as computers to meet online testing and virtual school requirements for graduation.
Erasing the Digital Deserts
Eighteen months ago, Miami-Dade County Public Schools initiated a bold, technology-based educational venture with the launch of our iPrep Academy, a technology-rich environment with full wireless access. The school combines online and face-to-face classes in a unique learning environment that encourages inquiry and creativity, in a student-led/teacher-inspired model that was recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal. The school provides laptops for all students for classroom use and homework assignments, as well as internship opportunities in private industry and local government.
iPrep exemplifies many of the advantages that digital transformation offers educators. Students benefit daily from personalized and highly adaptable technologies. Digital resources provide analytics that serve as real-time feedback to teachers to improve instructional effectiveness. Teacher and administrator work is made easier through wireless attendance-taking via in-school Wi-Fi connectivity and direct parent communication and access.
This year, we’ve expanded the iPrep model to other schools and have found it to be an effective means of erasing the digital deserts in underserved communities where the learning deficit is often prevalent. The iPrep example affords the transition from the bricks-and-mortar, 180-day school year that’s divided into 60-minute chunks punctuated by slightly annoying bells, into a 24/7 anytime, anywhere learning opportunity.
The iPrep model demonstrates that a refocusing of taxpayer dollars is needed immediately, away from high-cost printed materials and toward digital content that can be shared at a fraction of the cost. A concerted effort by two or three large states could spark a paradigm shift that will revolutionize the American classroom from the inner city to rural outposts and all points in between. Legislators must be convinced of the importance of schools having this cutting-edge technology that is available at a much lower cost. School districts need it to progress. The time is now to reinvent tomorrow.
Alberto M. Carvalho is the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.