Wave of digital textbooks hits area school districts

Teachers, students, even parents must adjust as shift to paperless classroom materials speeds up.

ByJulie Chang


“My Wi-Fi was slow” and “My printer broke” are the new “My dog ate my homework” in Central Texas schools, which are increasingly abandoning paper textbooks for digital alternatives that are cheaper and help prepare students for their computer-dependent futures.

Starting this year, all Austin district high school students have digital math and social studies textbooks, with the printed editions staying in the classroom. The Leander and Hays school districts have also increased their digital textbook inventory over the past two years.

The digital materials give teachers more options for classroom instruction and

help school districts cope with the loss of millions of state dollars for textbook purchases. But they also are leading to costly upgrades in schools that now try to provide tablets or laptops for students who don’t have them, as well as police how everyone on campus is using the district’s wireless network. More than a few parents are struggling to adapt to cyberhomework.

Amy Robertson, whose daughter attends 10th grade at Vandegrift High School in the Leander district, was one of those parents. Her daughter’s backpack has become lighter over the past couple of years as she has brought home fewer textbooks. It wasn’t really a problem until Robertson’s husband was trying to help with her geometry homework this semester.

“It’s not very user-friendly, and (it’s) hard to flip between the examples and instructional pages and the pages with the problem. That was the issue,” she said.

So Robertson dropped $75 for a geometry textbook to use at home.

“We wanted the text and reached out to the publishing company, and he said no problem ... and then I started thinking about all the kids who can’t afford to do that,” Robertson said

School districts keep libraries and computer labs open after school so students can access digital textbooks outside of class time. Many students are also encouraged to bring their own devices to supplement the schools’ sets of limited equipment.

Leaving paper behind

Melissa Prepster, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at South Austin’s Gorzycki Middle School, has long been a proponent of integrating technology into her instruction. The 23-year teaching veteran boosted her use this year after Pearson, the publisher, released a more interactive online interface.

This week, her students were using some of those interactive pieces as they crowded around netbooks, creating videos about colonial trade. She’s heard that one of her students bought a print textbook to have at home, but she sees the new materials as a more versatile tool.

“It’s a total paradigm shift,” she said. “It’s not just a textbook that happens to be digital. There’s videos. I can upload content. There are interactive pieces where they can drag stuff around.”

The digital transition gained momentum about four years ago when the state stopped paying for a textbook for every student in every course. School districts statewide were given a pot of money — $1.4 billion for this school year and next — to buy textbooks, forcing them to cut costs.

Concurrently, textbook publishers were offering more cost-effective and spruced-up electronic products than ever before. Almost all texts on the state-adopted list this year have a digital option.

Several textbook publishers, such as McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, offer cost-effective bundles that include a yearslong subscription to their digital editions along with a class set that often includes 25 printed versions.

Sometimes 25 isn’t enough for classes, which can have upwards of 30 kids. The Leander and Austin districts underestimated the number of printed copies that some classes wanted and have had to order more weeks into the school year or deal with their limited copies.

Wired up

Central Texas school districts have poured millions into buying sets of laptops and tablets for students to share campuswide. The 8,000-student Eanes district is one of the few that makes a device available to each student and has spent an estimated $5 million on that effort since 2011.

The 36,000-student Leander district plans to issue a tablet to all secondary students over the next two years, expecting the rollout to cost $16.3 million, which includes equipping teachers with devices.

Kip Harmon, the social studies curriculum director for the Leander district, said one of the biggest challenges is not only improving students’ access, but fortifying their Internet infrastructure to handle the district’s move to digital on multiple fronts, not just with textbooks. The district has spent an estimated $1.6 million over the past three years on things such as installing more bandwidth, upgrading servers and improving wireless network coverage, but still needs many upgrades.

“They did a lot of work ahead of time in anticipation of us doing this — not to say that we don’t have days when things slow down, especially when a lot of folks are hitting, but I think it’s better,” Harmon said.

Although a majority of the Hays district’s textbook inventory is paper, kindergarten through eighth-grade math and science classes have both print and digital access. About 20 percent of the district’s high school textbooks are digital this year.

The district is starting to poll parents when they register on whether they want digital textbooks. A growing number do.

“As kids are moving to the real world, they are having to use their devices and access resources on a continual basis digitally,” said Yarda Leflet, executive director of learning and teaching. “You don’t receive much paper any more.”

Contact Julie Chang at 512-912-2565.

Twitter: @juliechang1