No Textbooks in NYC Schools: Coming Soon?

Beth Greenfield, Shine Staff

Schools without textbooks? It could become reality in New York City, which is floating an idea to instead use tablets in all 17,000 public schools.

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"We currently spend more than a hundred million dollars a year on textbooks," said City Council Speaker (and 2014 mayoral hopeful) Christine Quinn, who made the tablet proposal Tuesday while addressing how to improve the city's school system. "That's enough money to buy tablets for every student in New York City public schools, and cover staff costs to make sure these online texts are meeting rigorous standards."

The idea to replace hefty textbooks with feather light, programmable iPads or other tablets represents a growing national trend (and could be a boon for your kid's poor back). And if Quinn's proposal becomes policy, the Big Apple would join hundreds of other school districts across the nation-from small-town Kentucky to the suburbs of Boston to San Diego-that are going completely digital.

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It follows efforts by the FCC, through a 2012 Digital Textbook Collaborative, to encourage and accelerate digital learning in K-12 education. And policy changes in a number of states-including Florida, which mandates the adoption of digital learning tools for all public schools by 2015-2016-reflect the trend, too.

Nine percent of school districts across the nation mandate the use of digital content, according to a soon-to-be released 2012 survey by the Center for Digital Education, a research institute focused on the intersection of education and technology. "The Center does not believe the textbook will remain a central pillar of learning," LeiLani Cauthen, of the Center, told Yahoo! Shine.

Another survey, the Project Tomorrow's Speak Up National Research Project, which looked at the results of more than 400,000 surveys from K-12 schools, showed in 2011 (the most recent year available) that 43% of district administrators are considering online textbooks instead of traditional ones as a way to save money.

And Apple reported in October that 2,500 U.S. classrooms were using iBook textbooks.

The transition from textbooks to tablets does not come without controversy, though. To address both sides of the issue, ProCon.org, a non-partisan research organization devoted to critical thinking on complex issues, launched a website in November 2012 that's specifically focused on the pros and cons of schools going all digital.

Proponents of tablets, the site points out, say that have the support of most teachers, that they are much lighter than print textbooks, and that they improve standardized test scores. Furthermore, ProCon.org notes, "They say that tablets can hold hundreds of textbooks, save the environment by lowering the amount of printing, increase student interactivity and creativity, and that digital textbooks are cheaper than print textbooks."

Opponents of tablets, though, say that they are "expensive, too distracting for students, easy to break, and costly/time-consuming to fix. They say that tablets contribute to eyestrain, headaches, and blurred vision, increase the excuses available for students not doing their homework, require costly Wi-Fi networks, and become quickly outdated as new technologies are released."

For her part in New York City, Quinn went on to explain why tablets would suit the city's public schools well. "So a teacher in the Bronx can pull together the most relevant information for his class, and update it throughout the year to stay current," she explained. "He can incorporate videos and interactive multimedia assignments that better engage kids living in a digital world. By using tablets instead of textbooks, the possibilities really are limitless."

Still, some are doubtful. Eric Nadelstern, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College and New York City's former deputy chancellor, told the Daily News that tablets represent just one of many useful tools. "Will it take the place of all printed matter? Definitely not," he said.

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