- The Washington Times - Monday, July 18, 2011

By 2015, the nation’s schools will abandon traditional textbooks in favor of digital learning. Over the next four years, the nation’s government will spend more than $2 billion to provide every student with a tablet and, in the process, become the first country in the world to go paperless in its schools.

No, not the United States. It is South Korea that is leading the way in classroom technology.

The Seoul-based Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported recently that the format will include “the contents of ordinary textbooks,” but the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology plans to build a cloud-computing system in all schools so students can access a wealth of information with their handheld devices.

Although some districts in the U.S. have moved from paper texts to online or digital curricula, the chances of implementing a federally run program like the one in South Korea are slim, said Keith R. Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, an association of school technology leaders.

“I don’t think we’ll see something like that,” he told The Washington Times.

With America’s tradition of state and local control over schools, he said, the transition from books, pencils and paper to 21st-century tools such as iPads, Kindles and smartphones must come from the ground up.

Mr. Krueger did say the federal government could use its “bully pulpit” to push change. It is a strategy the Education Department began last year with the National Education Technology Plan, which encourages states and districts to expand Internet access, provide more computers and other devices for students and use those devices for instruction and assessment.

“Our theory is that, really, we want to be tight on goals and set the stage,” said Karen Cator, director of the department’s office of educational technology. “We need every student in this country to have the best possible opportunity … to do that. We need to leverage the best possible technologies.”

Although the plan can serve as a blueprint, Ms. Cator said, state governments ultimately must take the lead.

Maine and other states have relied for several years on cutting-edge technology, rather than textbooks, to educate their children. The Florida Legislature this year passed a bill requiring all school districts to go digital by the 2015-16 school year. The West Virginia Department of Education told its counties last week to begin preparing for electronic textbooks, according to the education website eschoolnews.com.

Not all states, however, are taking the top-down approach. Instead, the digital revolution has begun in individual school systems such as Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, with 5,600 students just north of Charlotte.

Four years ago, the school district undertook the mammoth project of providing each student in grades four through 12 with a laptop and began the transition away from textbooks. The results have been better academic performance, higher graduation rates and happier teachers, said Superintendent Mark Edwards.

“The idea of having bound materials in the 21st century doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “We stopped buying textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, globes and maps. Students have shown a keen interest in an environment where they’re using 21st-century technology.”

The school district now uses digital resources for 90 percent of its classes. Within a year, he said, it will be 100 percent.

Even in tough economic times, he said, district leaders made a simple choice: Technology in the classroom became their “21st-century plumbing,” not viewed as a luxury but an absolute necessity like a working cafeteria.

“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.

At the state and district level, she said, schools can learn from one another, replicating the successes of Mooresville but avoiding its mistakes. On the national scale, she said, the Education Department will keep a close eye on South Korea to see what works and what doesn’t.

“South Korea is … leading with this initiative, and we should watch and learn,” she said.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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