Wake County school board discusses equity issues of using digital textbooks

Posted by T. Keung Hui on January 31, 2014 

The latest question about equity in the Wake County school system concerns access to digital textbooks.

As noted in today’s article, Wake is making its first big plunge into the world of digital textbooks with last week’s approval of an $875,384 contract to use Discovery Education’s Science Techbook through June 2017. One of the concerns raised by school board members is the ability of low-income students to use the new “techbook,” which will require kids to go online to use the content.

“We have to recognize that this does get back to that equity of access issue,” said school board member Jim Martin. “The family that has the computer at home has access that other people don’t.

This is a challenge that we always have. It doesn’t matter whether it’s this or any other resource. There are differential resources, but we’re now putting in place something that exaggerates that differential access.

You talk to anybody who works at a public library. You do not have equal access to computers at home. To the child that has the 15 minutes of access at the public library, they’re not going to be able to do much with this resource.

If we’re moving In this direction, we have got to work incredibly hard at increasing access. Both network accessibility and hardware accessibility, and right now we have not answered either of those problems. I am concerned that moving in this direction is exacerbating the equity issue, the achievement gap issue.”

Wake is a long way off from having one-to-one computer access at schools. The district is studying implementing a “Bring Your Own Device” model in which students are allowed to bring in their own wireless devices for classroom use.

School board vice chairman Tom Benton, who has questioned whether Bring Your Own Device will make the equity issue worse, also raised concerns last week about the ability of low-income students to use the techbooks. But he joined the other board members in unanimously approving the contract.

“At some point I’m hoping we’re working to develop some kind of plan to as far as possible provide reasonable access to all students,” Benton said. “It’s not just at home. It struck me when you talked about individual login what kind of assessment have we done to determine the availability of computers, even at schools.

Some schools have in essence one to one in the classrooms. Some have it where they have to go to a lab. They’re are all kinds of combinations out there.

I’m not saying that as a hurdle to stopping this because I very much believe that we’ve got to access these kinds of materials. But it is incumbent upon us as a system to figure out how we’re going to make sure that every child has access. And again the issue with public libraries is that frequently the very students who don’t have access at home live in remote parts of the county that make it difficult to get to a public library.

I’m looking forward to hearing more definite plans about what we’re going to do and how much it’s going to cost to provide that kind of access because science is just the first step. This is the direction that we’re moving in as a society, I believe, and to me it’s an exciting direction if we can get over the hurdle of equity.”

School board member Bill Fletcher asked how students who don’t have Internet access at home can use the material. Todd Wirt, assistant superintendent for academics, answered that students can download material onto a flash drive or print out material to take home with them.

School board member Monika Johnsont-Hostler asked if there’s a mobile site that students can access on their smartphones if they don’t have a computer at home. Wirt answered that while there’s not a specific mobile site, students can use their smartphones to go online to reach the techbook site.

Benton said in an interview Thursday that he’s requested school administrators to provide him more information on how they can promote equity in the use of the techbooks. Benton said one of the things he’s asked is how much it would cost to acquire devices that students could check out to create personal hotspots at home to access the techbooks.

As noted in this December article in the Charlotte Observer, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system began using the techbooks last year. They’re also using the social studies techbook in addition to the science one.

In a followup blog post to that article, Charlotte Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms writes about how a CMS teacher at high-poverty school said his students are far less likely to be able to do the techbook work from home. They may have smartphones, he said, but they're not likely to have laptops or home computers that are conducive to moving among multiple items and doing online work.

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