Should Your Public School System Switch to Online Textbooks?

A recently divorced mom of three, Kathleen was still working on her budget for back-to-school expenses when a local public school system announcement took her by surprise. Her son Josh’s high school planned to offer some of its classes using online textbooks during the upcoming academic year. Kathleen immediately worried that she’d be financially responsible if Josh misplaced or broke one of the school’s netbooks.

While the practice of using online textbooks has been popular on some college campuses for a few years, is it a good idea for the high school or middle school your children attend?

The Martyrs Public School

The Washington Post reports that Fairfax County public schools will implement a pilot program using online textbooks at a dozen middle schools and high schools for the 2010-2011 academic year. The Northern Virginia school system – one of the largest on the East Coast – has yet to designate the specific schools participating but has targeted social studies classes for the pilot.

Students in these classes will access their textbooks via netbooks, which are smaller and lighter than laptops. Teachers will also use netbooks to access professional resources. What isn’t clear is whether the netbooks will travel home with a student each day for homework assignments and studying for tests or if the student will need to access the online texts using a family computer. The Fairfax County system estimates that around 88 percent of county households have access to the Internet. Nearby Frederick and Arlington counties have been reported to also be moving to online textbooks.

Advantages of Online Textbooks

When school districts investigate replacing a textbook, one of the first considerations is cost. According to Scholastic, so-called paper textbooks are expensive. Even elementary school textbooks cost more than $100 each purchased in bulk. As a result, the 4 largest textbook publishers take in more than $4 billion a year, Scholastic reports. Most school districts interested in a digital switch anticipate it will generate considerable savings over time.

A second advantage to netbooks is relative durability. Many standard textbooks that have been physically damaged must be replaced even when the information in them isn’t obsolete.

Any student whose shoulders look rounded while carrying a backpack will probably complain about the weight of some textbooks. Use of a netbook to access online textbooks would lighten the physical load considerably.

Disadvantages of Online Textbooks

Critics of the idea of using online textbooks are quick to point out that any projected cost reduction is just a guesstimate. Fairfax County will incur no additional cost to participate in its pilot program. The school district normally orders new print texts at the seven-year mark. While officials believe a full-scale switch would probably save the district money, they have no cost estimate for an online textbook program.

Another concern is whether using online textbooks might have a negative impact on any students with learning disabilities. Parents as well as educators are also worried about students who use online texts in the classroom, need to finish homework or prepare for tests after school, and have no Internet access at home.

Just as some colleges have banned laptops from classrooms as distractions, some teachers foresee a similar problem with netbooks. A student representative on the Fairfax County school board remarked that high schoolers have already found a way bypass blocking designed to limit their access to social networking sites like Facebook.

The Forecast

Scholastic concludes that while a move to online textbooks is probably inevitable for most students, it will be gradual. It’s unlikely that your children will face a specific date when instruction goes completely digital. Experts believe that for a while, at least, it will most likely utilize a mixed bag of print and digital media.