More students are accessing their textbooks online.

Cobb and other districts move to online textbooks. Is it working? 

Online textbooks bring both benefits and problems for the school systems that embrace them. In researching districts around the country that use them, it seems the first few years are rough, as revealed by the initial experience of pioneer Fairfax, Va., schools.

The Atlantic did a deep dive into the question, quoting proponents who cite the ease with which online textbooks can be updated and the ability to link students to related enrichment materials. But the article also quotes critics: 

Bill Buxton, the founder of the open-source publisher Textbook Equity, is skeptical of technology as a substitute for traditional learning materials. "I haven’t seen really strong evidence that people are doing a lot better with the online stuff than textbooks," he said. "Where’s the evidence? ... It’s coming from the biased companies; they want to make sure people buy it."

Others are wary of technology’s impact on learning, including Nancie Atwell, who founded the Maine-based Center for Teaching and Learning. "I think they are a disaster for teachers. We don’t know anything about the value of eBook. They’ve been foisted on teachers because they are the latest technological advance so they must be good," she recently explained to my colleague. "The problem with eBooks is that the kids remember much less than what they read on the screen compared to the book."

With that background, here is a letter from a Cobb parent to district leaders about her concerns over online textbooks at her local high school. The mother shared her letter with me.

Superintendent Ragsdale, David Chastain, Cristin Kennedy, & others:

My daughter is a student at Sprayberry High School. When she told me that her science and social science textbooks would be issued to them in an online-only format, I was skeptical, but I decided to give it time to see how things would play out once they received the hardware necessary to access their online books.

However, it appears that there is no hardware coming. My understanding is that there will be a classroom set of the physical copy of their textbooks and that each student will be given access to the online and/or mobile version of their textbook. Though it is providing students with the requisite permission to access their books, Cobb County expects the individuals that make up its diverse student body to own and maintain adequate technology in order to support this initiative—and it had that expectation without informing the parents of what type of hardware would be required. That is an unacceptable way to operate, and I am stunned my daughter attends school in a county that would roll out online-only textbook access without also ensuring that its student body can access their instructional materials, especially since Cobb County’s official policy regarding textbooks is that they will be “furnished without cost to students."

Cobb County has no shortage of families that struggle financially — 44 percent of its student body is eligible for free or reduced lunches, according to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. Even those of us with the financial means to provide for our children do not always have the resources in place to accommodate this change.

We are only two weeks into school, and this initiative is already negatively affecting my own family: This semester, my daughter’s AP Physics and AP Psychology textbooks are online only. There appears to have been an assumption that students would be able to access their books from their mobile devices, but that is not the case—at least, not if they have a “regular” phone, not a mini-tablet. My daughter has an iPhone 6, and the screen is not large enough for the textbook’s software to recognize it as an approved device. 

Our family does not have a designated laptop that is “hers,” and she does not own a tablet. At this moment in time, she has no reliable way to access her textbooks, especially when multiple people need the computer or she is working on schoolwork when she is outside of the home, such as before or after work or while waiting to pick up her sister from an activity. 

Even if she could access the textbook on her iPhone, it’s not an acceptable solution. The volume of reading that needs to be done in college-equivalent humanities classes cannot be reasonably consumed on an iPhone. 

And given the features that come with the online textbook, simply issuing the students a physical copy of the textbook does not meet their needs. My daughter’s psychology class is expected to keep up with supplemental reading and video materials linked to from within the textbook, complete the textbook’s integrated “quizzes,” use the note-taking features that make it easier for students to identify and organize key points, and so on. 

Cobb County's economically disadvantaged students already face an achievement gap — 74.4 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduate, compared with an 89.3 percent graduation rate for students from families with “adequate” resources. Rolling out an online-only textbook initiative without providing the appropriate hardware will only make that gap more significant. 

How does Cobb County plan to address this issue? What will you be doing to ensure that both my child as well as other students in the district receive full access to their textbooks? I look forward to hearing from you soon.

 I sought a response from Cobb Schools and received this statement:  "We support our teachers using a variety of resources to provide students with relevant, rigorous, and engaging instruction in a way a single textbook cannot do alone. This process was driven by teacher input to better prepare students for the 21st century workforce. Students have access to print resources at school and home along with digital access to all materials and the necessary hardware to use them at school.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.