Digital textbook mandate creates a wrinkle
LAND O' LAKES - The state Legislature wants school districts to spend less money on printed textbooks and more on electronic versions, with the goal of at least a 50-50 ratio by 2015. But a Land O' Lakes High teacher says the shift might be happening a little too fast. "This electronic thing is too much too soon for too many students," Robert Marsh, a history teacher, told the Pasco County School Board last week. The school district adopted new social studies textbooks this year, but in a break from past practices, teachers were provided just one set of books, which were to be kept in the classroom.Students, instead of having a textbook to take home, were to tap into an online version. That's not worked out too well, Marsh said. Parents complain of problems logging on to the online textbooks, he said, and some students simply don't own a computer. "They don't have access to this stuff," Marsh said. That wasn't the first time Marsh addressed the board members about the looming textbook problem at the high school. He appeared at a meeting in July to warn that students with limited access to technology "are going to end up with a problem." Extra textbooks are supposed to be available for students who don't have Internet access, but Marsh said some teachers are waiting for delivery of textbooks four weeks into the year. He labeled the situation a "fiasco." "Students can't wait," Marsh told the board. District officials say the move toward digital textbooks partly was to save money. As it planned to purchase instructional materials for the 2012-13 academic year, the district determined there was a gap between the needs and the state funding available to purchase materials, said district spokeswoman Summer Robertson. Electronic versions of textbooks are less expensive than printed copies. Another factor came into play, too. The state Legislature has mandated that by 2015 every school district in Florida must spend at least 50 percent of its instructional-materials funding on electronic resources. Pasco officials said in July that the lack of dollars, mixed with the looming mandate, "forced us to begin thinking about options that would allow us to secure a high-quality product that meets new statutory requirements in the most cost-effective manner." A committee reviewed options and came up with a hybrid solution that combined an in-class set of textbooks with student access to online content at home. Online textbooks can be problematic even for families with a computer, Kenny Blankenship said. Blankenship is a vice president of United School Employees of Pasco and a teacher, but he's also the father of two teenagers. He said his household has one computer shared by four people. "I want each of my children to have a textbook in their hands," he said. Online resources "were always meant to supplement the textbooks, not replace them," Blankenship said. "We are cheating (students) out of a free and appropriate education," he said. The move toward greater dependence on online educational materials shows no sign of abating. Just this week, a newly created state Digital Instructional Materials Work Group held its first meeting in Orlando. The nine-member group's task is to develop an implementation plan to help school districts meet the 2015 goal that the Legislature has set for them. That implementation plan is to include options for providing access for students, providing content by subject area, providing training and professional development for teachers and identifying funding sources. "As technology continues to advance, it is essential that our schools are ready to integrate digital instructional materials into the curriculum," public schools Deputy Chancellor Mary Jane Tappen said in a written statement. "This is an important priority for our state and the taskforce will help guide the transition so educators and students are prepared to master subject area content in new ways."
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