By ARTHUR H. ROTSTEIN, Associated Press Writer
Students at Empire High School here started class this year with
no textbooks - but it wasn't because of a funding crisis. Instead, the
school issued iBooks - laptop computers by Apple Computer Inc. -- to each
of its 340 students, becoming one of the first U.S. public schools to
shun printed textbooks.
School officials believe the electronic materials will get students
more engaged in learning. Empire High, which opened for the first time
this year, was designed specifically to have a textbook-free
"We've always been pretty aggressive in use of technology and we have
a history of taking risks," said Calvin Baker, superintendent of the
Vail Unified School District, which has 7,000 students outside of
Schools typically overlay computers onto their instruction "like
frosting on the cake," Baker said. "We decided that the real
opportunity was to make the laptops the key ingredient of the
cake ... to truly change the way that schools operated."
Two years ago, about 600 school districts nationwide had pilot
projects to provide laptops for each student -- a figure that's likely
doubled since then, said Mark Schneiderman, director of federal
education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association
But most still issue textbooks -- for now.
"Because most schools are not starting from scratch ... most districts
are using a blended approach now and will phase out their printed
textbooks," he said.
For example, in the Henrico County school system near Richmond, Va.,
students in 23 middle and high schools will be using laptops for the
fifth straight year, though teachers still use textbooks, said
spokesman Mychael Dickerson.
Many publishers of traditional textbooks are offering digital formats
to address the growing use of computers, and that provided some of the
material for Empire High's curriculum. Teachers also used subscription
services and free Web resources.
Students get the materials over the school's wireless Internet
network. The school has a central filtering system that limits what
can be downloaded on campus. The system also controls chat room visits
and instant messaging that might otherwise distract wired students.
Students can turn in homework online. A Web program checks against
Internet sources for plagiarized material and against the work of
other students, Baker said. "If you copy from your buddy, it's going
to get caught," he said.
Before Empire High opened, officials looked at the use of laptops in
other schools and decided that high school students were more engaged
when using computers. Unlike many adults, teens weaned on digital
material seem to have little difficulty adapting to reading primarily
on computer screens, Baker said.
But educators also decided they could do more with the technology.
In addition to offering up-to-date information, teachers can make the
curriculum more dynamic. For example, lessons in social studies, which
might previously have been done in summaries, can include links to
full Supreme Court rulings or an explorer's personal account of a
Social studies teacher Jeremy Gypton said the transition was easier
than expected. Gypton said he assigns readings based on Web sites,
lists postings to news articles, uses online groups and message boards
to keep the students connected on weekends and asks them to comment on
each other's work.
One of the more surprising things, he said, was finding that students'
proficiency at video games and e-mail hasn't always translated into
other computer skills.
"One of the greatest challenges actually is getting the kids up to
speed in using Word, in using an Internet browser for other than a
simple global search," Gypton said.
All of Empire's students knew about the laptop-only setup when they
enrolled, and students who were uncomfortable with it were allowed to
enroll in the district's other, more traditional schools. But Empire
has a waiting list.
Julian Tarazon, a freshman, said he doesn't miss lugging around a
bag full of books.
"It was kind of hard at first, because you had to put things in
folders," Julian said, referring, naturally, to virtual folders on his
computer's desktop. "After a couple of days, you kind of get used to
Freshman Morgan Northcutt said the computer system has made it easier
to do assignments, and she isn't as likely to lose them.
"There's complications like hooking up with the Internet, but other
than that it's been pretty easy," Morgan said.
The school isn't entirely paperless, however. It has a library,
and students are often assigned outside reading.
"We're not trying to eliminate books," Baker said. "We love
On the Net:
Vail School District: http://www.vail.k12.az.us/index.php
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new
articles daily. To read all stories from AP each day, go to: