From textbooks to tablets

Officials with Nashville-area private high schools wrestle with a challenging transition

To eLearn or not to eLearn? The answer — much like the process itself — is in flux.

As Nashville-area private schools slowly transition toward using electronic devices in the classroom, they continue to wrestle with the thought of accelerating the process while addressing the flaws by which such devices are burdened.

Many colleges and universities are now using any number of e-book readers and, as such, private schools — which tend to have the resources to utilize the latest advancements in classroom learning tools — want to prepare their students.

But there are concerns. These include expense, practical limitations and determining if academic subject matter that is available in electronic form lends itself more effectively to conventional textbook presentation.

In simple terms, e-book readers — which include Amazon Kindles, Barnes and Noble Nooks, iPads, Kobos and Sony Readers — are nowhere near being a primary learning tool in the classrooms of Nashville’s private high schools.

“The biggest challenge we have going to an eBook system, and we continue to address it with our curriculum committee, is that quite a few of our textbooks are not available in eBooks,” said Rick Seay, high school director at Montgomery Bell Academy.

And there is the question of usefulness.

Katye Russell, a seventh grade English teacher at University School of Nashville, said hard-copy text presents a certain logistical advantage as it relates to a book’s copy and graphic presentation and placement.

“For those of us who grew up with paper text, [there is a consideration of] remembering where the info is on the page,” Russell said. “That doesn’t work effectively on an iPad.”

If fact, some wonder if e-book readers, like many technological advancements that predate them, might become obsolete sooner rather than later. 

Michael J. Saylor, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and technologist, predicts in his best-selling The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything that the tablet computer eventually will render the e-book reader unnecessary. 

USN’s Russell said there is a “cost-benefit piece” to the use of an e-book reader.

“How much of it benefits students and how much of it is just cool?” she asked.

“We’re leery of leaping too quickly toward the decision to go with technology just for the sake of technology,” Russell added. “We want it to benefit the students rather than it be another toy.”

Russell said some students are more eager to read on an electronic device than others. And, of course, many teachers are 30 and older and, not surprisingly, more comfortable with conventional textbooks. As such, there is the question of universal acceptance.

But there is no question of partial acceptance.

Molly Rumsey, directory of library and information services at Harpeth Hall School, said the e-book reader is “the way things are going” in secondary education.

“We are moving in that direction,” Rumsey said. “Can I say in three years we will be there? No, I can’t say that.”

Rumsey teamed with colleague and academic technology specialist Melissa Wert last summer to teach, through the Center for Innovative

Educators, a workshop course geared toward educators and called “Creating Your Own E-text.”

“I think it went well,” Rumsey said. “The crux of the course was having folks create their own text.”

“It’s a daunting task to create an eBook,” she added. “The goal of the summer workshop was for teacher to create one unit.”

Rumsey said Harpeth Hall (two students of which are seen in the above photo) is a “laptop school,” with many of its math classes no longer using traditional text books.

“It will be a slow progress but textbook companies are starting to see it now,” Rumsey said of the transition from primarily textbook usage to mainly electronic book usage. “What we see a lot of now is taking a PDF version of a textbook that students can read on line. That’s fine but it doesn’t give it a full capability. The next wave will, and should be, video and social networking features.

Sara Hayes is spearheading the use of iPads and e-book readers at Father Ryan High School, at which she serves as vice principal and academic dean.

“We’re gradually moving into the use of online text,” Hayes said. “In some of our science classes, we use only electronic text.”

Hayes said Father Ryan teachers have moved to the use of iPads this school year. On that theme, the school has more than 400 students with access to several subjects (English, science and history) for which their classrooms have sets of iPads. In fact, some Father Ryan science classes use only electronic text.

“Within the next year to two years, we will be moving to a one-on-one iPad program,” Hayes said.

Last academic year, Father Ryan landed a private grant to purchase 75 Generation 3 iPads. For this academic year, the school purchased 87 for professional training.

“One advantage of the iPad is that students submit all work online,” Hayes said. “So that work is time and date stamped. The students get instant feedback and they love that.”

The transition will not come overnight. But just like the days of the old-school chalk board were numbered, so are (to a degree) the days of static textbooks.

If anything, MBA’s Rick Seay said, one e-book reader is much less heavy then multiple hard-copy textbooks.

“It would certainly,” he said with a chuckle, “save our students’ backs.”