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The same digital revolution that upended the music industry and is transforming TV, movies and books is slowly working its way into classrooms.
In many schools, students are just as likely to carry a cell phone as a backpack. Schools and libraries are wired, outfitted with desktop, laptop and netbook computers with high-speed Internet access. Many of them are beginning to experiment with touch-screen computer tablets like the Apple iPad or increasingly powerful smart phones.
But when it comes to the holy grail of electronic education — the e-textbook — Texas schools haven't quite arrived at the date when students can stop carrying printed textbooks around.
But they're getting there. For this first time, school districts in Texas had the option for the 2010-2011 school year to decide what percentage of their textbooks were electronic or printed and could use textbook money to instead purchase things such as electronic devices or supplemental Web-based educational materials.
But school districts, lawmakers, educational software developers and officials in the Texas Education Agency say a lack of ubiquitous Internet and computer access for students, weak e-textbook content and costs to schools and publishers are major obstacles that have to be overcome before printed textbooks are gone for good.
What is an 'e-textbook'?
Part of the problem with getting electronic textbooks into the hands of students in Texas has been that "e-textbooks" itself is a broad term that, for all its promise, doesn't really mean anything.
"The term 'e-textbooks' has been thrown around pretty indiscriminately," said state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. "There's been electronically produced textbooks since the mid-'90s."
Hochberg, who co-authored legislation last year that allows the state to purchase electronic content and distribute it to students instead of, say, printed texts bundled with CD-ROMs, said the term covers a wide variety of formats and devices.
The most basic kind of e-textbook a direct reproduction of a printed text in an electronic PDF format. But, under state law changes, it can now also be Web-based educational material, including video, interactive quizzes and discussion forums.
Legislation that passed last year also opened up billions of dollars in textbook funds that also can be used for laptops, smart phones, e-book readers or other devices we haven't even dreamt of yet that will access textbooks that are housed online.
Hochberg said he believes that the state and school districts will save money by distributing educational material through "open-source" licenses. The state would purchase electronic content from a publisher once and be given the ability to distribute it as many times as needed to students and teachers instead of paying for each textbook. If a print version were needed, it could be printed from the electronic version for about $25 for a single copy.
"We'd have as many copies as we needed," Hochberg said, "We'd never again have to buy Shakespeare."
Open-source, Web-based texts, he said, also allow the content to be accessible from any device, from an iPhone to a Kindle e-book reader to a desktop in a school's computer lab.
It's a large shift that puts the state in the position of managing large quantities of data and beginning to solicit new kinds of educational software and texts.
"It really puts Texas out front in the educational materials market," he said. "There's not a lot of states with enough students to get into the content development market."
Digitizing the district
John Alawneh , executive director of technology for Austin Independent School District, said many students, including his own three children, would love to abandon their bulky school books. "They would love to access everything they need online rather than carry their textbooks with them," he said. "They rely on Google to look up concepts they're exposed to in class to get quick information. I think that's what electronic textbooks will do."
But Alawneh and Dave Sanders, director of educational technology for the Austin district, both said that although administrators, teachers and students are excited about the educational opportunities new technologies might provide, issues of access and a lack of truly interactive content is delaying the shift.
"I think the value and the benefit is very clear," Alawneh said. "But I don't think the challenges have been resolved. How do you take full advantage of the electronic book and why is the cost still the same?"
In many cases, Alawneh said, publishers won't sell an electronic copy of a book without the purchase of a print edition as well. And frequently, that electronic copy is a PDF version of the text with no added interactive features or content.
Though the electronic texts are easy to print from and searchable, making it easy to find keywords, they're not the future, they said.
"An electronic textbook should be a lot more than a PDF of what the hard copy is," Sanders said. "It's online, so that's one step forward, but it should be a lot more."
Sanders and Alawneh said that a bigger concern is that as school districts move to electronic textbooks it's important that all students have access to them, whether they're at school or at home.
"Going electronic with the books at the state level is going to cut down a lot of cost. But then you need these devices at the school level," Alawneh said. Whether it's a netbook, iPad, smart phone or e-reader, he said, "Equipping each kid with some kind of device is not cheap. Most likely the district is going to have to take on that responsibility if the state or the community does not find a solution to make sure all kids have the tools and digital resources to access (e-textbooks) from anywhere."
Av fast Internet connection in homes is also an obstacle. Data from the state show that although 97 percent of homes in the state have access to broadband Internet, only 62 percent use it. The situation is more dire in Hispanic and black non-Hispanic homes. According to 2009 U.S. Census Bureau data, only 39.7 percent of Hispanics and 45.9 percent of black non-Hispanics have high-speed Internet at home in the U.S., compared with 65.7 percent of white non-Hispanics and 67.3 percent of Asian non-Hispanics.
Nevertheless, AISD is optimistic that eventually costs will go down and that the growing world of educational mobile apps and video-rich Web content will be the future of classroom learning.
"We know we can't go 100 percent digital at this moment in time," Sanders said. "But we feel we're headed that way."
The devices they'll use
What that educational future looks like has been the central preoccupation of Michael Mayrath, president of a small Austin company called GetYa Learn On. Mayrath has a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Texas and spent a year at Harvard University as a post-doctoral fellow studying educational testing.
Along the way, he's been a tester of e-textbooks for the Texas Education Association (a position he's leaving soon to focus on his company) and has developed an iPhone/iPad app, "Statistics 1," that has sold about 5,000 copies.
From what he's seen of e-textbook submissions and in his own education research, he believes the materials can improve substantially.
Big publishers aren't using the advantage of the digital medium, he said. "If an e-textbook is Web-based, think of all you could do with online learning."
Mayrath said that could include virtual worlds (like the online game "Second Life"), educational games, simulations and programs that cater to the student's individual learning needs and interests.
In addition to multimedia, built-in quizzes and flash cards, e-textbooks could also offer more tools for teachers and continuous assessments that would give educators more insight into a student's learning.
Those kinds of e-textbooks will need to be available for a wide variety of devices, but Mayrath and many teachers and software developers are impressed with the capabilities that apps for smart phones and for devices like the iPad are bringing to the table.
One app in particular, "The Elements: A Visual Exploration," a visual representation of the Periodic Table, has been a hit in some classrooms and was mentioned several times by sources interviewed for this story as an example of the next generation of educational tools. In "Elements," each element is represented as a 3-D object that can be rotated by touch.
Apple Inc. itself has been doing iPad pilot programs in Texas in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, in Beaumont and in White Oak Independent School District in East Texas.
Closer to home, Dell Inc. is bullish on the market for its devices as e-textbooks begin to take off. Mark Horan, vice president and general manager of the company's educational business, said the company was an advocate of last year's law changes based on demand from its customers.
"I think we played a big role in making that happen," Horan said. "We believe the technology will engage students and help them a great deal."
Horan said he believes school districts will opt for devices that do more than simply access textbooks from a website. "Offering up a multifunction device like a PC or a tablet allows you to collaborate online and prepare content and do more than one thing," he said.
The company has an education lab at its Round Rock headquarters and is eyeing devices that could be used in schools. This month it released the Streak, a mini-tablet with a 5-inch screen that can also work as a smart phone. The company is also expected to release a larger tablet device soon.
"We're definitely looking at all different possibilities," Horan said. "It's a great opportunity for Dell to work with publishers and content providers in the (education) industry."
What's available now
In April, Gov. Rick Perry predicted that electronic textbooks would be the only textbooks by 2014.
"I don't see any reason in the world we need to have textbooks in Texas in the next four years," he told a computer-gaming education conference at the time.
After the education laws were passed last year in the Texas Legislature, the state authorized the creation of a Texas Education Association Commissioner's List of electronic versions of textbooks.
So far, about 15 texts are on that list, mostly in areas of literature and English. Anita Givens, association commissioner for standards and programs at the TEA, said the list is expanding to include science materials and resources for teachers. Though it takes about three years for textbooks to go through the State Board of Education's selection process, e-textbooks bound for the commissioner's list will only take one year.
Not everyone is thrilled with the TEA's progress. In an editorial published in May, State Board of Education member Geraldine "Tincy" Miller worried about outdated electronics, the cost of books shifting to districts and a lack of standards for electronic texts that aren't properly vetted.
"u2026 If we don't have quality content, the devices will simply be empty boxes," she wrote.
Givens is optimistic that e-textbooks, especially ones that will offer more interactive features, will feed a growing demand.
"The main thing is our schools are hungry for these new types of instructional resources," Givens said. "These are new and innovate ways of engaging students."