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E-readers go to school

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 12, 2011 - This month, when Estela Neel breaks in the new books for her learning skills class, she'll also be breaking new ground.

"It's just so convenient," she said of the 25 new Nook e-readers she will use to educate students at Hazelwood Northwest Middle School on Shackelford Road. "It's so fantastic to have this tiny thing in your possession where you can take notes and the kids can look up words they don't know and highlight things."

Neel is among many teachers who find themselves on the vanguard of a new way of looking at the classroom that could eventually fade into history as a novelty or might just boldly chart a future where the traditional textbook is a thing of the past. Either way, the e-reader revolution is just starting to filter into schools. Much like the rest of the e-book market, it remains a technology in its infancy, dominated by early adopters and far less widespread than its ink-based counterparts.

Neel said she's sensed a great deal more enthusiasm among students with the Nooks than with traditional texts. Right now, the devices aren't being used for textbooks at Hazelwood but Neel will employ them to deal with certain sixth grade reading units. She said she hopes to expand usage eventually to her seventh grade Spanish classes.

"It would be so nice to have textbooks on there as well," she said. "[Students] could carry that all day instead of having to lug around huge books."

It may reduce more than back strain, perhaps fighting social stigmas as well.

"Some are very embarrassed to raise their hand and ask what something means," Neel said. "They can look it up and know the meaning right there."

Engaged and in Control

For Brian Beracha, a seventh grade English teacher at Ladue Middle School, this year also marks the first go-round for e-readers.

"It's been a very positive response all the way around," he said. "If I had to give a percentage I'd say it's something like 95 percent of students prefer the e-reader to an actual book."

He said the new devices have both advantages and disadvantages:

"I find good and bad in them," he said. "The good is that students are very engaged in having control over their book, font size and things like that. It's a personal experience for the students. The downside I've seen so far is that it is not as easy to flip to a certain page quickly to reference something that happened earlier in the novel."

Novels are the main use for e-readers at Ladue, but Beracha thinks the devices have more possibilities.

"I think we're seeing that already," he said. "Textbooks and novels are available digitally. I think at this point it's just figuring out the means to bring it into the classroom. Is it going to be an e-reader type device? Is it going to be a tablet like the iPad? Is it going to be something we don't know about yet?"

Back in North County, the e-book phenomenon isn't just popping up in the classroom. At Brown Elementary School in Florissant the library includes about 30 e-book titles.

Librarian Alissa Roades said the transition has gone pretty smoothly since the books came in near the end of the last school year. Children have a user name and password and can check out volumes from a virtual library shelf, which allows them to read off any web-enabled device.

Still, she admits demand for e-titles has been somewhat limited.

"It's still brand new so the kids haven't used it as much as I was hoping at this point. But we're going up each and every month as the kids are becoming more aware of it," Roades said, "and our teachers are starting to use it in their classrooms in their reading corners."

Roades plans to add a few new titles every year with a focus on popular items as well as Newbery Medal winners and Mark Twain Award-nominated works.

"I see us being able to have books anytime all the time," she said. "If a kid left a book at school and needed to finish an assignment, he could just get online and read it then and there."

Roades thinks demand will rise significantly as e-readers become more prevalent and children see their parents using them more often.

"If they're reading, that's a good thing," she said. "That's how I feel about it. It doesn't matter what format they are using. Getting them into the printed word of some kind benefits them in many ways."

Beyond E-books

Zack Klug need only look at his garbage bin to see that things have changed at Lutheran High School of St. Charles County.

"I have a cup from McDonald's and one other thing in there," he said. "In previous years, I had two trash cans in my room, and both of them would be full of paper."

Today, however, the only time Klug hands out paper is for tests. His other handouts run through "dropbox," an application that allows electronic versions to appear directly on his students' iPads. For the first time this year, iPads became standard equipment for pupils at the St. Peters school.

Geometry and algebra texts haven't just been converted into e-books but into fully interactive applications offered by textbook manufacturer Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which produces programs that include step-by-step problem solving that each user can move through until he or she understands it.

"You are actually seeing the example being done as opposed to it just being a blob of math on the page that they can't interpret," said Klug. "They are able to move back and forth and discover why things were done."

John Sipe, Houghton Mifflin's vice president and national sales manager, said that, while his company does offer texts as simple e-books, the iPad apps are a way of pushing beyond the concept into a new way to teach and learn.

He said the company is doing research on the effect of regular e-book usage on students and, based on interviews, has found much the same thing as Beracha and Neel have in their classrooms. Subjects respond enthusiastically to the novelty of the electronic method of learning as opposed to old paper-based text.

However, Sipe cautions that quantitative data that will show actual student performance have not yet been tabulated.

He feels that the apps add a dimension not found in the ordinary e-reader.

"When you've simply changed the text into a digital format I don't think you've really changed the dynamic at all," he said of standard e-books. "They do improve the experience in that they are much more portable, and you can fit them all onto one device so they make it much more convenient. But as far as the teaching and learning, what we are excited about is the deep innovation we are doing."

That innovation allows for students to maneuver through a problem at their own pace or view one of hundreds of videos explaining the concept. Homework can be completed outside school hours and uploaded automatically when the student comes into the classroom's Wi-fi hotspot the next day. Information can be fed directly to the teacher who can see the problems the students are working on. Teachers can also use the "student response system" to ask students to work through a problem and see in real time whether the pupils are comprehending the subject matter.

"You see it on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' where they have the audience participate," Sipe said. "This is that same idea. You can see how your class is doing on a given concept."

The important thing, Sipe said, is that every form of interaction from simple problems to pre-tests to post-tests is shared with the instructor.

Klug said that Lutheran High students are allowed to take notes on their iPad or in standard notebooks. Meanwhile, the interactivity goes beyond the subject matter. Students are even updated through their iPad to let them know when papers are graded and what mark they got.

"We have a student planner on the iPad which can link to teacher calendars, teacher grade books. Certain assignments show up in their planners," Klug said.

Though Sipe feels that Houghton Mifflin's value-added approach will bear fruit, he said his opinion is that the research still seems mixed and inconclusive on whether plain, non-app-enhanced e-book usage creates only the excitement of novelty or if it translates into better student performance as well.

Also cost can be an issue for some institutions, which find capital improvement dollars hard to come by in an age of tightened budgets. Districts can't simply turn over all their electronic equipment every 18 months or so as many consumers do, he said.

"We're starting to see tablet come down into the sub-$200 range which feels like it's about the tipping point," Sipe said. "Superintendents I talk to around the country are waiting for a device that is rugged, has enough computing power and has the right feature set for a school district."

The jury may still be out on a number of issues but as research continues, some teachers are hopeful.

"It's all about engagement with the text and the fact that the students are excited about having a device in their hands that they can control a little bit more than a book," Beracha said. "I think that can only help."

David Baugher is a freelance writer. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.

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