Schools Dump Textbooks for iPods, Laptops

Teachers say students learn better from the devices, even multitasking.

September 13, 2009, 5:56 PM

Sept. 13, 2009— -- For generations, school meant books -- lots of books. But not anymore. Around the country, from high school to grad school, textbooks are getting harder to find. Technology has made the library something that can fit into the palm of your hand.

Cushing Academy, a private school outside Boston, is dismantling its library altogether, giving away 20,000. Headmaster James Tracy said the decision was simple.

"We decided that we can best use our resources if we decided to go with e-books and e-resources," he said.

Empire High School, a public school in Tucson, Ariz., is another textbook-free zone. Students there are given laptops on the first day of school instead of a pile of heavy books.

But Monticello High School in Virginia has launched an even lighter experiment in digital learning. A handful of classes are trying out the iPod Touch as a primary learning tool.

English teacher Mae Craddock said she structures many of her lessons around the new technology, instructing students to research, read and write on their handheld devices. It is something that she says came naturally to them.

"They took right away to it," she told ABC News. "There was no adaptation necessary."

Laptops and iPods cost money, of course, but so do textbooks; some can run a couple hundred dollars each. And because there is so much free educational material online, high-tech can sometimes mean low-cost.

There is another strike against traditional textbooks: They go out of date, sometimes within a year or so, and replacing them can cost a school district hundreds of thousands of dollars. But with new technology like e-books or handheld devices, updates can happen instantaneously.

Students at Monticello High School leap at the chance to use the Ipod touches for schoolwork. They say it's quick, far more convenient than big textbooks -- and there is that "cool" factor.

Schools Dump Textbooks for iPods, Laptops

But using Web-enabled devices in the classroom introduces a whole host of other issues. Sure, students are supposed to use the iPods for their class projects, but who will be the wiser if they shoot off an email or a tweet to their friends, or just surf the Web aimlessly instead of doing their work?

Craddock said that Monticello blocks many of the most popular social networking sites, but she encourages students to use Twitter during class to broadcast answers to questions.

All these distractions can also provide a useful lesson in how to navigate through a world where we're inundated with media and information all day long, she said.

"They're multi-taskers -- way better than we are," she said. "It's something that people do in everyday life and that's a skill they need to know."

Not everyone is keen on the new technology, especially graduate students in their late 20s and early 30s who can't get used to the idea of reading assignments off a small device.

Emily Cherry, a first-year student at Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, is one of dozens of students selected to take part in a pilot program. Instead of textbooks and photocopied case studies, students are issued their own Kindle, the e-reader from Amazon, at the beginning of the year.

"For me it's just harder to digest. I'm much more of a visual person and I can recall where I read something on each page. And it's a little harder for me on the Kindle," she said. "I'm trying my hardest to embrace it, but I'm not sure I'm totally there yet."

While graduate schools are trying to make students more comfortable with the digital classroom of the future, high schools and even elementary schools are playing catch-up to students who already seem to have this kind of technology built into their DNA. And education experts say there's no turning back.

Schools Dump Textbooks for iPods, Laptops

David Rose, a lecturer at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, said schools simply can't afford to rely on traditional textbooks because the social costs are too high.

"If we continue to prepare kids for their past, that's very expensive," he told ABC News, "Their future is largely going to be in new media. And textbooks are no longer preparing them for that future."

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