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From Books To Digital, Not Cheap Or Simple Move For Schools

Reema Khrais

In North Carolina classrooms today, students are dealing with far fewer textbooks. Over the last seven years, state money for books has dropped drastically. Those changes come as more classrooms become more digital friendly – a transition that won’t be cheap, or easy.

First, let’s take a look at the state of textbooks. Not too far from downtown Raleigh, a man named Drew Fairchild roams a huge warehouse.

Drew Fairchild, chief of textbooks services for the Department of Public Instruction, at the state's textbook warehouse.
Credit Reema Khrais
Drew Fairchild, chief of textbooks services for the Department of Public Instruction, at the state's textbook warehouse.

“It kind of looks like an empty bowling alley is what it boils down to, with concrete floors instead of wood floors,” he says.

On this day, and like many others, the state’s textbook warehouse is quiet. It’s Fairchild’s job to process book orders from schools and ship them out. A couple of loads sit near the front of the building, but he says schools just aren’t requesting as many books as before.

“[In] 2008, we had a ton of them. When the books started coming in, we were doing two or three semi-trailer loads a day.”

And now, “we see a truck a week maybe, a truck every two weeks.”

Schools don’t have the money to buy books, Fairchild explains. He pulls out a calculator, and begins punching in numbers to see just how much less the state has invested in textbooks since 2008.

“Eighty percent.  Yeah, 80 percent [reduction],” he says.

Fairchild says that means the books aren’t keeping up with changing curriculums.

“Here we are saying that we’re preparing kids for a 21st century environment, and we’ve got books from 2004,” he exclaims.  

Personal Laptops in Orange County 

C.W. Stanford Middle School science teacher Jeff Faulkner relies heavily on online resources for his 8th-grade students.
Credit Reema Khrais
C.W. Stanford Middle School science teacher Jeff Faulkner relies heavily on online resources for his 8th-grade students.

In Orange county, eighth-grade teacher Jeff Faulkner flips through an outdated science textbook at C.W. Stanford Middle School.

“There is nothing in here about climate change…nothing. There’s very little about conservation,” he says, looking through the book.

Faulkner says the textbooks are like old encyclopedias that sit unused on a shelf. In Orange County, school leaders use a quarter-cent sales tax to give all students, from grades 3-12, a personal laptop.  Older kids can take them home.

“We call them our digital textbooks,” Faulkner says. “Anyone else who has made any content and put it on the internet, we can vet it and flesh it out and we decide whether or not we want to use it.”

Faulkner says he sends his students almost everything online – videos, links, assignments. It’s how they interact.

He and other teachers have met several times this summer to prepare for the new school year and search for open source materials online. Sixth-grade teacher Lori Merritt says transitioning to digital does come with its challenges.

“I think the biggest problem is that my parents tend to check out,” she says.

She explains that parents have a harder time brushing up on the material to help their kids with the homework.  

Going Digital By 2017

“We are moving to a digital environment in education all across North Carolina, we are not all moving at the same rate but we are all moving,” says Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union).

Horn says the state will officially move away from funding textbooks and transition to digital learning environments by 2017 - a deadline etched into law.

“That would be great if we could get there. That may be a bit elusive, but I don’t think we’ll miss it by much,” he says.

North Carolina State University's Friday Institute for Educational Innovation is developing the state's digital learning plan. Some of the initial goals include providing statewide infrastructure and resources, like providing WiFi in every classroom, and supporting professional training for educators. 

"The idea is for students to be able to move through instruction at their own pace, to get instruction that's more personalized to their learning styles and needs," explains Mark Samberg, Technology Innovations Project Manager at the Friday Institute.  

The Obstacles 

To reach their goals, schools need one thing.

“Funding,” says Destiny Ross, instructional technology facilitator at Vance County schools.

“All of our teachers, all of our classrooms are outfitted with appropriate resources, but just in terms of what goes into students’ hands, that is our challenge,” she explains.

In Vance County, only some high and middle school students get their own laptops, and Ross says they need more money just to keep them up-to-date. Because the state isn’t giving enough, school officials rely on grants and local dollars, which means other areas in education have suffered. The district, for example, doesn’t have as many substitute teachers anymore.

“And that’s a sting. It seems minor, I’m sure to someone on the outside looking in, but you can tell,” she says. “We can tell.”

There’s another big hurdle when transitioning to digital. Amy Walker, director of technology at Ashe County schools, says about 75 percent of kids have internet access at home. So what about the other 25 percent?

“Exactly. And if you require for it to be digital, what are we going to do for those kids?”

Education leaders say teachers need the right training so students are not at a disadvantage, and that requires money. 

In the House’s budget proposal, lawmakers want to spend about $21 million to support the state’s digital learning plan and establish broadband access in classrooms.

Both the House and Senate budget proposals would also expand the money for digital resources, which is now lumped together with the textbooks allotment.  The House’s proposal would boost the funding by $50 million, while the Senate would boost it by about $29 million.

Those new funding levels for would be a start, but not enough – just yet – for classrooms to officially ditch the textbooks for tablets. 

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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