Could digital tablets replace textbooks in Warwick public schools? Mayor Scott Avedisian said it’s an idea he’s been tossing around with the School Committee.
“I have been speaking extensively to the chairwoman of the Warwick School Committee about the use of technology in the future,” said Avedisian. “We will be putting together a special committee that will look at all aspects of purchasing tablets or devices on which students would be able to download textbooks.”
Avedisian said the idea is still in its initial phases, and they’re looking into answering many of the questions surrounding costs and practicality.
“Before jumping right into the program, we would like to take a real look at this and make sure that we have a plan that makes sense financially and educationally,” he said.
Dr. Anne Siesel, assistant director of curriculum for Warwick schools, is in charge of the district-wide budget for textbooks. Siesel said the cost of a digital textbook is about $10 less than a traditional book, which range in price from $60 to $200. In addition, where most hard copy texts are replaced every 10 years or more, digital textbooks must be renewed or upgraded every five to six years.
“It’s got its upsides and downsides,” said Warwick School Committee chairwoman Beth Furtado.
The upside is that schoolbooks would remain current with the more frequent updates.
“If Congress shifts from a Republican to a Democratic majority, the kids will know,” she said. “These stay current and updated.”
Furtado said some of the texts still in use in schools are being held together with duct tape and say the current president of the United States is George H. W. Bush.
Patrick Maloney, tech-guru of the Warwick School Committee, said another benefit is the decreased bulk.
“I see [students] lugging these books,” he said. “They’re so heavy. It would be great if they have something light weight.”
Siesel said the interactivity of the tablets, the decreased use of paper and the student’s ability to access the books and supplemental materials from any computer are all added bonuses of switching to digital editions of texts.
However, the initial investment isn’t something the city can afford to do any time soon.
“The cost falls on the district,” said Siesel, noting that some states (none in New England) receive state aid for textbooks. “It’s not financially feasible for us to consider at this time,” she said.
Last year, the city replaced an entire series of textbooks in the elementary schools, a $715,000 expense. A tablet, bought in bulk, would cost roughly $150. Providing those for the 10,328 students in Warwick, more than a $1.5 million investment, is what Furtado called “significant money.”
Maloney said the primary concerns of the school committee are the fire code updates, which are expected to take three years. Until those are finished, he said, its highly unlikely the city will invest in moving forward with tablet integration.
“We want to do this without raising the taxes,” he said. “We don’t want to put any additional burdens on anyone.”
Maloney said the estimated cost of full integration of tablets and their accompanying digital textbooks would cost several million dollars. The high cost of the digital books, he surmises, is due to their lack of widespread use.
Siesel said if the cost of digital textbooks goes down, or if the five- to six-year license expiration is lifted, they would look more seriously into moving toward tablet integration.
In addition to the cost, committee members are assessing the physical difference between textbooks and tablets. A textbook, Furtado noted, can withstand a lot of abuse, but a tablet is a delicate piece of machinery. Furtado also said the city’s bulk orders of textbooks always come with extra copies; a bulk order of tablets would not. Maloney said the schools would also have to provide students with a means to charge the tablets.
Maloney said its unlikely tablets would replace computers in schools because all students have access to computers, whereas all students may not have initial access to the tablets.
For now, the idea to replace textbooks with tablets is in its infancy. Maloney said he would like to partner with the city on eventually implementing the tablets into schools and hopes there is grant money and special aid available for technological pioneer cities.
Furtado said the city would eventually try a pilot program in one level of schooling, either elementary, middle or high schools.
“I don’t know what the right answer is,” she said. “We’re trying to go paperless and keep current with the changes in the world. You have to move forward.”