From Textbooks to Tech Books

Empire High School in Vail, Ariz., is first in the state to replace books with laptops.

by / November 4, 2005
No more pencils, no more books ...

You no doubt recall the rest of the old schoolyard rhyme, but you probably never imagined you'd see the day when there would be no more books in classrooms, at least not the kind made of paper.

In one pioneering Arizona high school, students have traded their textbooks for iBooks.

Construction of Empire High School in Vail, Ariz., began Sept. 27, 2004, and it opened its doors for the first time on July 22, 2005. The school is the state's first all-wireless facility to hand out laptops to incoming freshmen, all 350 of whom received an Apple iBook.

"Each new group of freshmen will receive new laptops," said Cindy Lee, principal of Empire High School. "The plan is for each student to use the same laptop for four years."

District administrators purposely kept the school smaller because research shows that students feel more connected and achieve more in smaller learning communities, Lee said.

"The kids love having those laptops," said Vail Unified School District Superintendent Calvin Baker, adding that it's not uncommon to see students surfing the Internet or doing their homework while eating their lunch. "You just don't see that kind of engagement in a regular high school."

An Apple for the Teacher
It's not surprising that a generation reared on Nintendo and PlayStation would be more comfortable opening up-to-the-minute interactive pages on a computer than the static print pages of a musty, outdated tome that was printed when Bush's daddy was president. Because computer prices have dropped, the cost of laptops is not much greater than the cost of textbooks.

"We took the money we would have put into textbooks, which is in the neighborhood of $500 per student, then combined that with the money we would have put in computer labs, and we pretty much had it covered," Baker explained.

"As far as sustaining it, we'll see," he continued. "We're hoping it's going to be so successful that our community is willing to support it. We're also hoping prices on laptops will continue to drop."

Students aren't the only ones excited about this classroom innovation.

"Our history and social studies teacher is just thrilled with it, because he can go immediately to original source documents," Baker said. "Social studies textbooks tend to be generic, politically correct and not very interesting."

With laptops, everything's up to date and there's no searching in library card files for a volume that might already be checked out by another student. On the Internet, the information is current and instantly attainable.

"Instructionally our district has identified the standards to be taught in each core content area and has calendared them," said Lee. "Our teachers use this as their guide and find appropriate resources to meet the objectives. To support the teachers, we have purchased subscriptions to curriculum resources like ABC-CLIO, Beyond Books and My Access Writing."

The federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates testing standards, and each state determines what their standards will be.

Of course, the information students can access via laptops is a concern, since there's also a lot of junk out there.

"We've identified sources," Baker said, referencing the school subscriptions to online services such as ABC-CLIO, a comprehensive online educational and reference database. "It's not like they're out there willy-nilly picking things up off the Internet."

Math teacher Melinda Jensen said using laptops in her classes adds a new dimension to teaching.

"Every time you present information in a different way, you catch learners that you may have missed before," Jensen said. "I would love to see every school district get one computer per child. It creates so many opportunities for learning."

The Dog Ate My iBook
Handing out laptops to incoming high-school freshmen doesn't come without risks -- especially the chance students can lose their laptops.

"The same thing happens as when they lose their $70 chemistry book," Baker said. "They have to replace it."

The laptops come with insurance, which includes a deductible, he said.

"We offered parents an insurance policy for $54 a year. Every parent bought it."

Fortunately there has been only one laptop lost thus far, he said, and it wasn't because the machine was misplaced.

"Interestingly enough, it was a parent who did it," Baker recalled. "They were clearing things off the counter at home, and shoved the iBook off the counter."

The school also offers loaner laptops.

Windows of Opportunity
"The students feel very professional because they are in an environment that ups their responsibility," Jensen said of her students' reaction to the laptops. "They're carrying this thing around, we're trusting them with it, and they're stepping up."

She admits that she expected her students would be whizzes on the computer because they are so computer savvy. But though they may know how to search the Web or download music, they haven't used programs like Excel or PowerPoint.

"By introducing them to these skills, we're giving them something they would have had to learn on their own later," Jensen said.

Although the tools of teaching may be different, the environment in most classrooms is the same. Students in Jensen's class still do most of their work using paper and pencil because it's laborious to do math on the computer.

"Kids are still taking notes and doing assignments," she said, adding that what has changed is how teachers plan for lessons. "Teachers often lean on textbooks when they're planning their lessons. Without the textbooks, it pushes you to be more creative."

She admits that laptop learning has created a lot more work and that she definitely feels the added pressure. But Jensen said this is often the case at any new school, and once there's a bank of lesson plans to draw from, the workload will decrease.

Having students surfing the Web in class also can present added challenges for the teacher.

"As soon as you go onto the Internet to do a search for something that's content related, they can very easily open an extra window and go off on a tangent," Jensen said. "That just requires extra monitoring on the part of the teacher."

Bookless Schools?
An all-wireless high school and an increasingly wireless world raises concerns for bibliophiles, and others, who wonder if books will become extinct.

"It's important to understand that there'll still be books required and in use. You can't substitute a computer for good literature," said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association. "Certainly no high school is going to say, 'We're done reading books now. We're sticking to the computer.'"

Wright adds that what computers could alter is how students might produce a term paper on the books they read for English or social studies.

"Maybe that looks completely different in an online environment," he said. "Maybe it's not printed and handed in."

Students might post their work to their own Web site with links to Internet sites they used for their research.

"The possibilities are remarkable in terms of how you create a product to demonstrate your knowledge and your skills," Wright said.

No Teacher Left Behind
Curriculum is still defined by strict standards that must be met before students can graduate, but the laptops have freed teachers from the restrictions they've experienced under President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, and given them greater control over what is taught the classroom.

On August 22, Connecticut was the first state to file a federal lawsuit challenging the No Child Left Behind Act. According to recent coverage of the lawsuit, which could be the first of many, there has been a backlash among administrators, educators, lawmakers and parents against the act.

The federal law mandates certain testing standards be met, but detractors say it doesn't provide adequate funding to ensure those standards can be met or that students can pass the tests.

Opponents claim that too much emphasis is placed on yearly testing, which will tell them little, especially about minority students who are already falling far behind. In addition, no funding is provided for the broad, enriching programs that will enable students to acquire knowledge necessary to succeed on the tests.

Proponents claim that states like Connecticut shouldn't have accepted the funds they were given if they were not in agreement with No Child Left Behind. Connecticut officials countered that they desperately need what federal funding is offered.

"In recent years, we've had far too much emphasis placed on test scores at the expense of real learning," Wright asserted, adding that he worries the graduation rate will decrease and the dropout rate increase because of it. "I also think that the public at large is very close to saying, 'We've had enough of this type of narrow focus on standardized test scores. School, learning and education mean much more to us than that.'

"The pendulum that got pushed in this direction in the name of accountability has really swung too far," Wright added. "It's time to regain our balance and make sure we have accountability and content-rich instruction, but at the same time have a broad range of instruction that takes into account all of those areas that really lead to a productive citizen and successful life."
Sue Owens Wright Contributing Writer