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Schools weigh benefits of digital textbooks

TAMPA - The books Florida students study from today could become artifacts they only see in pictures on the e-readers of tomorrow. That's because a law passed last session requires all public schools to adopt digital textbooks by the 2015-16 school year and spend 50 percent of their textbook budgets on digital materials. That's when school districts will slowly transition in digital materials and books will begin to disappear from shelves. But critics of the new law say it comes at a bad time, when school districts are slashing budgets deeply and laying off teachers. Even in Pinellas County, which has been at the front of the electronic text book movement, it will be a struggle to go digital by 2015. Clearwater High School was one of the first in the nation to give every student a Kindle. About 2,200 students just completed the pilot year where a quarter of their textbooks were available in electronic form.
And though school leaders are calling the project a huge success, don't expect to see another couple of thousand Kindles doled at another school in August. "Obviously money is an issue right now, and we do have start-up costs when taking on something like this," said Bonnie Kelley, supervisor for Pinellas County's Library Media Technology department. Clearwater High used about $390,000 from its technology funds to buy the Kindles and about a quarter of the books students used this year. Electronic versions don't automatically equal big savings. Pinellas County spent about $9.5 million on all instructional materials last school year, and buying digital versions isn't likely to decrease those costs by much – even though electronic textbooks cost about $10 to $25 less. "Textbook publishers will tell you the bulk of their expense is in course development, not printing," said Gary Klesius, Pinellas County's supervisor of instructional materials. "We will save money in shipping and book replacement for damaged or out-of-date books. And of course, you can get updates to books much quicker." Schools will also be able to save money by not stocking library shelves, said Keith Masterides, Clearwater High's principal. Books with expired copyrights become part of the public domain and are free on the Kindle. That means every student can read many of the classics, such as "The Great Gatsby," for nothing. Despite such savings, some school district leaders have said it will be tough to fund the digital switch by 2015. Many schools have classroom sets of e-readers but not enough to fill the needs of all students. Hillsborough County leaders are spending $900,000 to give 800 students and 100 teachers iPads at two new schools next year. Some of the money will come from a three-year, $11-million federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant the Hillsborough school district received in September. When switching to digital, districts must not only pay for e-readers but also to upgrade district bandwidth to support the use of wireless devices. On the second day of the program at Clearwater High, the school district got a call from AT&T, the company that provided wireless service for the Kindles, because the large amounts of text being downloaded crashed the system. State leaders say four years is enough time to make the switch. Districts only need one complete subject area to be digital by the 2015-16 school year and will be required to phase in other subjects in each subsequent years. The state is leaving the choices of which areas to switch first up to districts. "I believe there will always be a combination of textbooks and digital materials in classrooms, as it should be," said Mary Jane Tappen, the state's deputy chancellor for curriculum and instruction. School districts can use "Race to the Top" funding from the federal government to help pay for the switch, and they can choose whatever e-reader works best for them, Tappen said. The state is not mandating that school districts use the same thing. "Frankly, technology changes so fast, we think that it's best to leave that up to districts to determine what is going to fit their needs best," she said. "It's in the best interest of the publishers to make their content available for multiple formats." District leaders have differing opinions on which device should be used. At $177 apiece for a Kindle, Clearwater High was able to provide double the number of e-readers Hillsborough will be able to with the iPad. But the iPad has more interactive capabilities, such as the ability to play videos or run interactive quizzes. The top priority is exposing students to digital learning, Tappen said. Testing, such as FCAT and end-of-course exams, will go digital by 2015, and the state wants students prepared. "We don't want their first exposure to digital content to be during testing," she said. Kelley said the benefits of going digital are worth the expense. "I'll admit that I had my doubts about the Clearwater pilot, but when I saw how engaged these students became in learning this year, I saw the difference," she said. "It's the right move because it is the future, and we have to embrace it."

msager@tampatrib.com (727) 815-1073

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