Superintendent addresses concerns regarding move to digital textbooks
After members of the community voiced concern regarding the Macon County School District’s decision to move to a 1:1 format for digital textbooks in high school across the district, Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin reached out to members of the media to share information regarding the process.
In this coming school year, all high school students in Macon County will take part in the initiative to provide 1:1 digital learning devices (iPads) fully equipped with textbooks to students.
“State funding allocated toward purchasing new textbooks has been steadily reduced from $297,726 in 2008-2009 to $62,773 in 2013-2014,” explained Dr. Baldwin. “This represents a 79 percent reduction in funding. It has now been more than 10 years since Macon County Schools has adopted new textbooks, and since that time, new curriculum standards have been imposed. Most of our current hardback paper textbooks do not meet or follow the new standards.”
The lack of funding over the last 10 years is not the only factor contributing to the school district's decision to move to digital devices. “In addition to the reduction in funding, the state recently announced that in 2017, the state would no longer make money available for hardback paper textbooks,” said Dr Baldwin. “In response to this announcement, we began looking at digital textbooks as an alternative to paper copies. We found that digital textbooks – with their interactive charts, graphs, and maps, imbedded videos, interactive quizzes, built in dictionary, highlighting and note taking capabilities – were superior to paper copies of the same textbook.”
According to Dr. Baldwin, who worked with Macon County Schools’ IT Director Tim Burrell, the cost of digital textbooks is far less than that of hardback. To license most textbooks on a digital device, the school system will pay about $15. The cost of purchasing a hardback textbook ranges from $70 to $125. “The average cost of providing eight hardback paper copy textbooks for a student would be more than $800,” explained Baldwin. “The cost of providing a student with an iPad and eight digital textbooks is about $727.”
To provide funding for the devices, the district began working with commissioners for overall technology upgrades in the district. Commissioners allocated $1.5 million to be spent over two years for replacing aging computers – many of which were nine or 10 years old – and other technology devices with newer technology. “With iPads we could provide more personal learning devices per student than we could by providing desktop computers,” said Baldwin. “We are using $275,000 of the remaining $1.5 million to enter into a lease/purchase agreement with Apple. The additional lease payments of $110,000 will be appropriated from State funds and conversion of a portion of textbook funds from the state.”
The majority of major textbook publishers are also making the move to digital devices and are not providing their textbooks in iBooks or digital formats. Although there are several digital devices available in various brands, the move to go with iPads was made based on the amount of curriculum available with the brand. “The Apple iOS operating system is a simple, stable platform with a well- defined App Store. Applications and textbooks available through the App Store and iBooks are also vetted by Apple to be safe, secure, stable and free of malware,” explained Baldwin of the decision to purchase iPads. We already have in place a Mobile Device Management (MDM) system to remotely configure and manage the iPads. This MDM system will also have the capability of pushing out apps and iBooks from our Volume Purchase Program and retracting the app licenses at the end of the semester. This level of backend management is not currently available for Android devices. Finally, many top-publishers for K-12 textbooks, such as Houghton Mifflin, Pearson and McGraw Hill, currently only have textbooks available in Apple iBooks.”
Dr. Baldwin noted that some parents may be concerned with the responsibility involved in keeping an iPad protected and undamaged. If a parent makes the decision to not allow their child to use the device beyond the classroom, the school system will make that possible.
“The iPad is a personal learning device and allows students to store notes, handouts, textbooks, instructional videos and a large variety of other applications that are designed to help students with learning,” explained Baldwin. “The use of the device outside of school gives students access to all of their materials 24/7. It is recommended that students take the iPad home with them every day. However, if parents choose not to let the student take the iPad home, then that student will become a day user. The student will be responsible for checking an iPad out every morning from the Media Center and checking it in again in the afternoon.”
Understanding that accidents happen, minor repairs and accidents to the devices will be covered by the school system as long as the problem is reported as soon as possible. Deliberate damage or damage due to neglect of the device will be the responsibility of the student.
The iPads will also be pre-programmed to filter inappropriate material or distracting applications while in school and home. “The iPads’ Internet access is filtered while at school and also when they are at home connected to their home Internet,” said Baldwin. “All Internet connections both at school and at home must pass through the district’s content filter firewall before the device is allowed to connect to the Internet. Our Mobile Device Management (MDM) system enforces this policy on all district devices. Our filters can also block social networking sites. Any attempt to disable, remove or bypass this feature will be logged and reported.”
Former Macon County Commissioner Bobby Kuppers while still on the board, inquired about the school system’s bandwidth capacity. Kuppers, who is also a teacher, was aware that state lawmakers are pushing to move state testing online. When asked if the school system’s infrastructure could handle the change, he was told it could, and according to Baldwin, the same stands true today.
“Macon County Schools had the foresight several years ago to build out a fiber infrastructure to all our schools,” Dr. Baldwin said. “We helped to form the WNC EdNET alliance and along with six other WNC school districts, SCC and WCU and others. WNC EdNET then obtained grants totaling more than $5 million to build out this fiber infrastructure. We now have 10 gigabytes (GB) and 1GB fiber connections to our schools and 250 megabytes of bandwidth to the state network. Our state network connection is provided free of charge to the schools and is upgradable according to our usage.”
Utilizing Race-to-the-Top funds, Macon County built a robust and scalable wireless network with more than 300 access points contacted to enterprise class wireless controller, which means Macon County Schools has the wireless network in place to handle all the devices.
While the shift to digital textbooks is one that is indirectly led by the state, the type of textbook used is not an indicator of student success, and as Dr. Baldwin noted, only quality teachers can be used to ensure students are taught what they need to know.
“Only good teachers have been shown to significantly improve student achievement,” said Dr. Baldwin. “The best teachers use a variety of resources including technology to meet different needs of students. We are fortunate that our county is able to provide our students and teachers with resources other than blackboards in today’s modern world. Student achievement in Macon County has steadily improved as standards have become more and more rigorous. While none of us see test scores as the only true measure of success we certainly want to provide our students with every opportunity become productive citizens.”
Dr. Baldwin also noted that he, along with Burrell will be holding public information sessions before school starts to address any comments and concerns parents may have regarding this initiative.