“It’s a matter of making choices,” he said.
The school district takes $200 of the $7,900 budgeted annually for each student and dedicates it to the digital learning program. The curriculum is developed through a combination of offerings such as Pearson Education and Discovery Education and smaller companies in North Carolina that provide resources at affordable rates and allow schools to bypass costly 800-page textbooks.
The school district’s graduation rate is 91 percent. Four years ago, before the “digital conversion” effort, it was 64 percent, Mr. Edwards said.
Similar transformations are happening in districts across the country, and textbook companies such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill are on board, said Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers School Division.
“Overall, publishers have been providing electronic types [of learning materials] for some time,” Mr. Diskey said. “The publishers are certainly ready for this type of transition.”
Although the $8 billion-a-year textbook business is ready to participate, the transition isn’t always easy for school districts. Mr. Diskey stressed that each of the nation’s 14,000 districts “is in a different place with their finances,” and for some, such a change would be too drastic.
For starters, the average student is accustomed to using a computer, tablet or smartphone for texting friends, playing games or staying in touch with Mom and Dad.
“It’s one thing reading a work of fiction on a Kindle. It’s another to read an advanced 900-page biology textbook on a Kindle,” Mr. Diskey said.
Virginia schools encountered such a problem last school year during their iPad pilot program. A state grant provided iPads to 400 students, and the state taught history and advanced placement classes with the devices, not books. Although the results were largely positive, state Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said, “Frankly, there were some shortcomings.
“There were some students who said they found the iPad very attractive and couldn’t help but play with it, versus focusing on the lesson, the instruction that was going on,” he said.
A bigger problem, Mr. Pyle said, was that some students could access the Web only while in school.
“When you have students who don’t have the Internet at home, there are some issues there,” he said. “You don’t need a router to use a textbook.”
To combat that problem in Mooresville, Mr. Edwards said, the schools partnered with local service providers that set up a $9.95-a-month high-speed Internet access rate for those within district boundaries.
For families that couldn’t afford it, he said, officials extended hours at school computer labs, allowing students to stay later and complete their homework. As a last resort, he said, the district encouraged older students to visit restaurants, bookstores or coffeehouses that offered free Internet access.
Ms. Cator said the Obama administration’s plan to provide high-speed Internet access to 98 percent of the country within five years would help remedy that problem.