Wake County schools moving to digital textbooks

khui@newsobserver.comFebruary 4, 2014 

Wake County’s middle schools are getting their first new science textbooks in nearly a decade, but they’re nothing like the paper textbooks of the past.

Wake’s 35,000 middle school students will log into Discovery Education’s Science techbook, an online site that includes a variety of interactive resources. Wake’s first big plunge into digital textbooks, or “techbooks,” points both to the opportunities that the new technology provides and the equity challenges for low-income families who don’t have Internet access at home

“Science is just the first step,” Wake County school board vice chairman Tom Benton said when the board approved the $875,000 digital textbook contract last week. “This is the direction that we’re moving in as a society, I believe, and to me it’s an exciting direction if we can get over the hurdle of equity.”

It’s an issue that will face all of North Carolina’s school districts as they enter a world where digital textbooks become the standard. Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation saying that state funding for textbooks would shift from paper to digital-only content by 2017.

Software has several functions

Discovery Education, owned by the same company as The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, provided school districts with free access to its techbooks in a trial last spring.

Wake ranked third-highest in usage nationally during the trial, according to Todd Wirt, Wake’s assistant superintendent for academics. Based on the positive experiences, Wirt said the district entered into negotiations to continue using the science techbook that’s been adopted by districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Orange County.

Wirt highlighted various features of the techbook program to the school board last week, including students’ ability to view the material in English, Spanish or French and to have the material read aloud to them by the computer.

The techbook software includes features such as lessons, videos, reading passages, tests, project ideas and vocabulary words that students can learn in multiple ways, including watching videos or animation.

The techbook also includes strategies for how teachers can work with special-needs students and students whose primary language isn’t English. In addition, the contract includes training for teachers using the techbook.

“We’re not presenting this as the resource, but an additional resource for our teachers,” Wirt told the board. “I think you can see the value.”

Wirt said they had given a demonstration to all Wake’s middle school principals, and they support using the techbook.

New generation of students

Benton, a former middle school principal, said the techbook fits the learning style for this generation of students.

“As a former teacher, I’m excited about this way you can get students engaged instead of having them just read a textbook,” Benton said in an interview Thursday. “Textbooks aren’t the easiest thing to read.”

Wake will pay $875,384 to use the techbook through June 2017. Wirt said Wake would pay $2 million if it was purchasing paper textbooks as it had in the past.

Because of cuts in state funding, the state hasn’t adopted new science textbooks since 2004. Wirt said the textbooks no longer are aligned with the state’s current science curriculum.

But school board member Jim Martin said they’ll have nothing after 2017 unless they renew the contract.

“We’re dependent on a new allocation of funds in four years, or we have nothing,” he said. “After four years we either go back to the 2004 data or we pony up. That’s just a fiscal reality that unfortunately is a challenge for us to deal with.”

Access to Web a key issue

But much of the discussion at last week’s board meeting was over how students who don’t have Internet access at home would be put at a disadvantage. Martin said the techbook makes the equity issue more pressing.

“To the child that has the 15 minutes of access at the public library, they’re not going to be able to do much with this resource,” he said. “If we’re moving in this direction, we have got to work incredibly hard at increasing access.”

Benton said there’s also an equity issue on campus because some schools don’t have a computer for every student.

Wirt said students can download material onto a flash drive or print out material to take home with them.

Orange County students who don’t have home Internet access download the videos and reading material, according to Angie Veitch, the district’s director of technology and media. The district provides laptop computers to every student in grades 3 through 12. The middle school and high school students take their laptops home with them.

Even with all the equity concerns, Benton said, the system needs to move forward with digital material while working on the access issue.

“I’m not saying that as a hurdle to stopping this because I very much believe that we’ve got to access these kinds of materials,” he said. “But it is incumbent upon us as a system to figure out how we’re going to make sure that every child has access.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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