NY School Goes All-Digital On Textbooks

Students in one school in New York are fully linked after the school digitalized its education by making almost all textbooks accessible on students' laptops and iPads. Most books are placed in a digital bookshelf kept in an internet cloud.

‘‘The last couple of years, this would have been like 30 pounds,'' revels a sophomore at Archbishop Stepinac High School, Brandon Cabaleiro, whose backpack load nowadays includes just his iPad, his lunch and a jacket.

However, the lost weight and a book bill that dropped from $600 to $150 were not the main reasons the all-boys Roman Catholic school north of New York City has gone all-in on the growing trend of digital textbooks.

‘‘We went to digital because it makes for better learning,'' says Frank Portanova, vice principal at Stepinac. ‘‘This is the way kids learn today. And the online content is a lot richer. You've got assessments, you've got virtual labs, you've got blogging.''

For instance, videos on subjects ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Malcolm X are included in the online history books. Scientific processes in motion are shown by the science books. All students can access all books in a way that a junior can look back at the freshman algebra book to review a concept. The textbooks have been updated three times this semester alone according to the school's technology director, Patricia Murphy.

Stepinac is the only school in the country, regardless of publisher, that arranged access to all books for all students per Lisa Alfasi of New Jersey-based Pearson Education Inc., publisher of the digital library.

History teacher Joe Cupertino believes having so much ‘‘enrichment'' available in the digital text means homework is productive and ‘‘frees us to do more discussion, more analysis in class.''

Academic improvement has already been noted by Portanova. The list of students on academic probation ‘‘has shrunk substantially, which I really attribute to this digital textbook library".

According to Jim Fitzgerald of boston.com, the boys buy their own tablet or laptop at Stepinac where tuition is $9,000 a year. And for a student body of 700 that has grown up with Google and YouTube, the transition from paper to digital has hardly been noticeable.

‘‘It's just natural,'' says Terrence Tonnock, a freshman.

A feature that allows the digital books to read themselves out loud particularly seems to fascinate freshman Michael Bilotta.

‘‘So when you're tired, on the bus or something, you can just put earphones on and hear the lesson," he says.

According to the director of education technology for the National School Boards Association, Ann Flynn, there's no reliable data on exactly how many schools are going digital, calling it ‘‘very much an evolutionary trend now". She also noted that other factors such as prices for tablets and laptops dropping, more states agreeing on a Common Core curriculum and online resources such as Khan Academy becoming available, are encouraging the move.

However, going digital is not cheap. Stepinac had to invest an astonishing $1 million in infrastructure, including increased bandwidth. A barrier in getting most multi-school public districts to make the all-digital leap has been the expenses involved.

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