No Textbooks in NYC Schools: Coming Soon?

Tablets are replacing textbooks at many schools.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. That would put the city in step with hundreds of other school systems across the country, where books and paper have gone the way of the mimeograph machine.

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"We currently spend more than a hundred million dollars a year on textbooks," said New York 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 move to replace hefty textbooks with feather light, programmable iPads or other tablets represents a growing national trend that's happened in places from small-town Kentucky to the suburbs of Boston and the city of San Diego. And, while it represents a major leap forward and would be a boon for your kid's aching back, the loss of textbooks has also been controversial.

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"We do not believe the textbook will remain a central pillar of learning," LeiLani Cauthen, vice president at the Center for Digital Education, a research institute focused on the intersection of education and technology, told Yahoo! Shine. But teachers have been building lessons around textbooks forever, she said, and with tablet-based learning, teachers can just have kids log in and have virtual lessons begin.

"This shift means they’re not lecturing as much, they’re facilitators," she explained. "It’s a behavior shift of monumental proportion, and so has been rejected by many teachers and districts. It’s an argument against progress based on how it’s always been done, and no one seems to have the complete answer."

Also, Cauthen said, there has been pushback over tablet plans because of fears it could lead to learning from home, through virtual classrooms. "As the school-safety issue builds, especially in light of school shootings, we’re seeing more talk about virtual learning where kids learn online from home, and now most States have provided online alternatives which is reputedly great for some learners," she said. "The controversy over the a model that is 'placeless' will probably rage for the next 20 years, but has a certain inevitability."

A soon-to-be-released 2012 study by the Center shows that nine percent of school districts across the nation now mandate the use of digital content.

Another survey, the Project Tomorrow Speak Up National Research Project, which looked at the results of more than 400,000 surveys from K-12 schools, showed that in 2011 (the most recent year available) 43 percent of district administrators were 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.

It all 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 2015-201—-reflect the trend, as well.

In November 2012,, a non-partisan research organization devoted to critical thinking on controversial issues, collected info from a plethora of studies and media reports to launch a website, "Tablets vs. Textbooks," focused on the most-discussed pros and cons of schools going all digital.

Proponents of tablets, the site point out, say that they are much lighter than print textbooks, and that they improve standardized test scores. Furthermore, 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 WiFi networks, and become quickly outdated as new technologies are released."

In New York City, Quinn explained why tablets would suit the public schools there so 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 remain 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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