April 23, 2014

E. It’s Complicated. How Two Schools are Riding the Transition to Ebooks

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In a 2013 survey, 26 percent of School Library Journal subscribers said they currently use
digital textbooks and ebooks, and 11 percent plan to use them. These statistics mirror national trends. Twenty-three percent of Americans over the age of 15 read ebooks, up from 16 percent the previous year, according to a Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project survey from December 2012.

For this close-up report on going digital, SLJ talked to academic experts and visited librarians, teachers, and students at two high-performing Illinois high schools: New Trier Township High School in Winnetka and Northfield, and Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Both schools serve upper-middle-class Chicago suburbs.

We asked the big questions on everyone’s mind. What type of device do schools prefer? Which are the best ebook providers? How many student iPads get damaged per year? Do students read more in ebook or print format?

Why go digital?

“It’s important for us to meet kids where they are, and right now, they’re online,” says Eric Twadell, superintendent at Stevenson, which gave iPads to about 15 percent of its 4,000 students in the 2012–2013 school year. That number will increase to 55 percent in 2013–2014 and 100 percent in 2014–2015. “In the long run, we see this as a little bit less expensive than all the textbooks that we’re purchasing,” he adds. Another motivation: “There is an electronic world out there that kids need to be taught to work with.”

Nearby, New Trier, with 4,200 students, is following a similar phasing-in approach. Though “we can’t say we’re committing to the iPad in perpetuity,” says Chris Johnson, director of technology at New Trier, “we’re committing to the change in how we teach and learn.”

Successful migration to ebooks occurs “when people have a plan for what to do with them,” says Lodge McCammon, Ph.D., project director at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina

State University. “Where it falters is when it’s about, ‘OK. We’ve allocated the money to get this really cool thing.’ Usually the phrase ‘it’s really cool’ means, ‘We don’t really have a plan for how to use it.’”

“What I tell schools, especially libraries, is to start small,” he says. “Pick a smaller subset of teachers who might use this and see how it works.” He suggests, “Buy a classroom set instead of saying, ‘we’re going to buy 500 of these.’ See how your community interacts with it.”He adds, “We need to be thoughtful about how we spend all this money on technology to make sure it’s something that’s wanted.”

What devices are best for schools?

Stevenson and New Trier prefer Apple iPads, about $500 each and offering plentiful apps. “There’s just a lot more written for the iPad,” says Doug Kahler, director of information services at Stevenson. Librarians at both schools provide extensive one-on-one technical help. While Stevenson and New Trier purchased the newest iPads, Mother of Mercy High School in Cincinnati, OH, went with the earlier version to save $50 per device—significant when multiplied by 260 students.

Will ebooks help kids learn more?

Though iPads don’t raise test scores, according to Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, educators are bullish on ereaders for other reasons. “Many of these apps allow for audio, video, and interactivity. And the more involved you are with content, the more likely you are to retain it,” says Sue Polanka, creator of the No Shelf Required blog (www.libraries.wright.edu/noshelfrequired) and head of reference and instruction for the Wright State University libraries in Dayton, OH.

In addition, she says, “Not everybody learns by reading. Students who are reluctant readers have had success using electronic devices. When they open something on a tablet, they don’t see how thick it is, how intimidating it is. The tablets excite kids. They see them, and they want to touch them.” That said, she notes that some children, including her own, say they want a “real book”—a print one.

“There are a lot of kids who are intimidated by the thickness of books,” agrees Deborah Stevenson, director of the Center for Children’s Books at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Plus, if a student is reading in digital format, no one needs to know she is in remedial reading. On an iPad, “It looks just the same.”

What is the biggest hurdle?

Price remains an issue, notes Lisa Dettling, Stevenson High’s head librarian. Stocking a library with ebooks is expensive, and the devices are pricey, too. “There’s a concept called the ‘total cost of operation’—TCO,” says Cuban. “A lot of times when districts buy iPads or ebooks, they do not include the total cost of operation”—repair, maintenance, and fees for technical assistants.

WiFi is also a factor. “Does the school have the bandwidth?” says Polanka.”Do they have the infrastructure in their school to support suddenly thousands of extra students? And what happens when the students go home? What if they don’t have WiFi there?”

Filtering requirements are also a challenge. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), enacted in 2000, offers schools government discounts if they filter their Internet service. “You’ve just given this student a $500 device with Internet access,” says Polanka. “While they’re at school, all of their Internet use is filtered.” But what if the student takes the device to Starbucks, where there’s no filtering? “Is the school going to be liable for that? Is it a violation of privacy to check where he went?” she asks.

Also, like price, technology keeps changing. “It’s constantly evolving, which makes it both exciting and frustrating,” says New Trier librarian Linda Straube.

How easy is it for kids to check out books?

Students at New Trier and Stevenson can get digital titles remotely 24/7, 365 days a year. “That’s really what we love about the ebooks,” says Toni Gorman, associate librarian at Stevenson. A student might avoid the library because it’s considered uncool. But “if we can teach that kid to do it online, we might have opened him up to getting a book when he otherwise might not have.”

Stevenson logged 822 ebook and audio book checkouts and 5,026 print book checkouts between January 1 and August 9 of 2013, mostly for pleasure reading, says Dettling. The number of items circulated, including books and devices, is up tenfold, largely because of devices (chargers, iPads, Kindles, and iPods).

Dettling held four raffles in April for a $25 Amazon gift card going to students checking out ebooks. In March, with no giveaways, 115 people checked them out. Monthly, 400 to 500 kids check out print books.

How do you handle ebook checkouts and returns?

Stevenson and New Trier let kids take ebooks for three weeks; they just lose access when their time is up. There are fines for overdue digital devices—$1 a day at Stevenson—but not for ebooks. Stevenson students pay 10 cents daily for late print books.

What about WiFi, electric outlets, and keyboards?

Throughout the school, Stevenson installed four charging stations with 14 lockable, iPad-size cubbies with outlets. The library lets students check out chargers for the hour. School-issued keyboards and covers help protect devices.

How can librarians encourage educational use of the devices?

At Mercy, librarian Linda Behen features an App of the Week and also suggests tools and apps for specific assignments. Plus, she tweets or emails teachers and students with app recommendations, including GoodNotes, Pages, myHomework, Educreations, Notepad, iHomework, Real Sticky, Dropbox, and Evernote.

Who owns and pays for the devices?

It varies. Stevenson keeps the iPads when students graduate. At New Trier, kids, beginning with the class of 2014, will take theirs with them. Families pay $350 and the school chips in $270 to cover the cost of the $500 device, the $70 keyboard and case, and $50 in apps. Kids on the free- or reduced-lunch program do not need to pay, but must give back iPads upon graduation.

Likewise, at Mercy, students keep the iPads. “We figure in four years it’s not going to have much value,” says Behen, author of Recharge Your Library Programs with Pop Culture and Technology: Connect with Today’s Teens (Libraries Unlimited, 2013). “The iPad is a personal device.”

Her school buys the iPads in 10-packs, which saves them $20 per unit (iPad 2s are $399, but Mercy pays only $379). Mercy lets kids load whatever they’d like on the device. “We want them to be curious and to tinker.”

What if the devices break?

Stevenson bought Apple Care Plus insurance, which charges $49 for a damaged or broken device and $250 for a lost or stolen one. In 2012–2013, there were 70 $49 charges and two $250 ones.

All three schools record serial numbers and match them to student names. Stevenson also engraves iPads with the school’s name and contact information.

Who pays for e-textbooks?

Stevenson traditionally loaned its students print textbooks and will do so with ebooks. The good news: While paper textbooks cost around $120, e-texts, usually sold for one-year use, are typically about $20, says Kahler. At New Trier, students traditionally buy their own books. A new pre-calculus print textbook costs $206.75; the ebook is $22.

Who puts content on the devices?

Stevenson pre-loads note-taking apps like Keynote and Pages and a Casper Suite mobile-device management system called Self Service to facilitate students’ downloading textbooks. When kids check out a device, they’re instructed not to download any additional content—music, apps, or books.

What about annotating ebooks?

Many students worry about annotating on iPads. But Carlo Trovato, an English and journalism teacher at New Trier, thinks it will be easy for them to use different online colors for notes and questions and to email them to him. He likes UPAD, an annotator, and NoteTaker.

There’s also the environmental advantage. A teacher can PDF a handout instead of photocopying it, notes Trovato. Stevenson’s iPads are programmed not to print.

What’s the best way to get e-content? For what cost?

Getting quality e-content can be tricky. “It’s still a print textbook world out there,” says Behen. The big issues are availability of titles, access, cost, and quality, says Straube. “You need to get ebooks from multiple places,” she adds. (See SLJ‘s School Ebook Market Directory)

E-content from OverDrive is pricey, partly because schools need to pay a hosting fee—about $3,000 a year for schools the size of New Trier and Stevenson. Libraries pay more for ebooks than other buyers. For instance, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (Knopf, 1996) costs $44.85 on OverDrive and $11.99 on Amazon, says Straube. Toni Morrison’s Home (Knopf, 2012) is $42 through OverDrive—down from $72 in the spring—for one student at a time to check out, vs. $9.99 on Amazon.

“This is what all libraries are facing,” says Straube, who is not a big Overdrive fan. “Their ordering process is really cumbersome,” she says. And the company emails her about books that don’t interest her in print or e-form. By contrast, Follett focuses on simultaneous classroom use by multiple students and does not charge the hosting fee, says Straube. However, Follett offers fewer titles.

OverDrive offers libraries more than one million titles. But they’re expensive, and it’s hard to track who uses them. “If you stop paying hosting and service fees” for content, “you’ll lose access,” says Polanka. “When you’re working with e-content, you’re licensing. You’re not necessarily purchasing.” But using students’ personal Kindles or Nooks isn’t necessarily the answer, either. “You are now locked into that device and that online bookstore,” says Polanka.

How quickly should schools go “e”?

Stevenson and New Trier took it slow. “In smaller schools, it is easier to dive into the deep end more quickly,” says Twadell, whose school board voted in February 2012 to give $499 current-generation iPads to 800 students, many taking AP classes.

 To get started, New Trier teachers wrote proposals outlining how they would use an iPad in the classroom. The school picked 25 of the 60 entries, representing different types of classes and grade levels.

 As Stevenson began the transition two years ago, it added dozens of electric outlets to its library, eliminated four of its 12 computer labs, and weeded 15,000 of its 45,000 print books. To help students with technical issues, the school created an Apple store-style help desk.

 Will students still want the library—and print books?

Maybe more than ever. Stevenson expanded its library hours, now 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. On a typical day, 175 students are there at 4:30. ”It’s a gathering place,” says Dettling.

 Students don’t want the print titles to disappear. “It’s almost more fun to go to the library and pick up books,” says New Trier freshman Annie Pinkerton. “I can just explore more.” 

 “What if all the technology crashed?” asks New Trier freshman Marnina Hornstein. “You’re not going to have any books!” Plus, “A lot of online stuff is very unreliable,” says New Trier freshman Adam Peterson. “It can crash. It can fail…The only way to destroy actual text is to burn it.”

 “It’s nice to turn real pages,” says New Trier senior Dylan Gunther. “You don’t want to stare at pixels all day.”

Others don’t mind the extra screen time. New Trier senior Chad Casas has read many books on his iPhone 5. But regarding print vs. pixels, he says, “You should always have the choice.”

Mike Boehm, a New Trier senior, read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods (Doubleday, 1997) on an iPad. Though “It wasn’t bad,” he didn’t like the screen or “having to rely on the battery.” Many agree. “It’s easier to manually flip through the pages,” says Julia Schuham, also a New Trier senior.

 There’s one distinct advantage to ebooks: lighter backpacks. Even e-wary students like the potential drop from 60 to 30 pounds, says Kahler.

 What about novels that aren’t available as ebooks?

Many books, like those by uber-popular teen novelist John Green, aren’t available through OverDrive. Since Penguin pulled out of OverDrive, books, including Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why (Penguin, 2007) and Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, 2012), aren’t offered there. Despite Penguin’s recent merger with Random House to form Penguin Random, the publishers’ lending terms with libraries aren’t in sync. Random House currently offers ebooks to libraries through 3M, Baker & Taylor, Follett, and OverDrive. “Penguin Random House will eventually have unified library sales terms and practices,” says Penguin Random spokesman Stuart Applebaum.

 OverDrive doesn’t carry J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (Little, Brown, 1951) and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (J.B. Lippincott, 1960), so students use hard copies of those classics. OverDrive doesn’t offer “The Hunger Games” series (Scholastic), but Follett does. However, availability changes, says Straube. “The available titles are often in flux.”

 When Stevenson and New Trier librarians looked at which of their top 10 circulating items—including books and devices—were available in e-format, they discovered that only some were on Follett or Overdrive—and many on neither.

 Should all schools go “e”?

“To hold out ebooks as some sort of salvation is worrisome,” says Martha Brockenbrough, founder of National Grammar Day and author of Devine Intervention (Scholastic , 2012) “It’s not the ‘e’ that makes the book good. It’s what’s in the book.”

 “Do you want to go feed kids cheap, chemical-ridden fast food, or do you want to nourish them with something good?” she asks. “It doesn’t matter the plate that it’s served on—whether it’s a paper plate or fine china. The point is what’s being served.”


Karen Springen, who spent 24 years at Newsweek, teaches journalism at Northwestern. She is the mother of two daughters whose high school still uses print books.

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