Florida looks at taking school textbooks completely digital by 2015

Get ready to say goodbye to bulky books. There's a move to go all-digital in Florida classrooms.

State education officials rolled out a five-year proposal this week that calls for all students in K-12 to use only "electronic materials" delivered by Kindles, iPads and other similar technology by 2015.

"This project reinvents the way students learn and will revolutionize instruction in Florida," says the plan presented to the state Board of Education Tuesday. Both Senate and House education committees will have hearings on the subject today.

"Digital is here. We can choose to ignore it, or we can choose to embrace it," said David Simmons, chairman of the Senate Pre-K-12 Appropriations Subcommittee. He predicted legislation would be filed after another round of committee meetings.

Many states, including Florida, are experimenting with schools going partially digital. Clearwater High School went a step further this fall, handing out Kindles to all students to use instead of textbooks.

But in the proposal, all Florida districts would begin phasing in digital-only content, first for high school students and then for all others in reading, math, science, history and language arts.

Lawmakers and state education leaders said Wednesday they were both intrigued and cautious. The proposal sparked questions about costs, capacity and whether districts were technologically advanced.

"We need robust technology... not something that is antiquated," said state Board of Education member Dr. Akshay Desai, whose three children do their reading on iPads. "We don't want something that works so slowly that the children will laugh at it."

DOE officials were not available to talk about the proposal.

Rep. Marty Kiar of Davie, the ranking Democrat on the House Pre-K-12 Appropriations Committee, said he welcomed the digital discussion but raised questions about access.

"What happens to children who are low-income or who don't have a computer?'' he asked.

Longtime Marianna educator Marti Coley, a Republican who chairs the House Pre-K-12 committee, had similar concerns. She views her committee's hearing on the plan today as a needed step.

"I want to be educated on every step of the plan," Coley said. "What are we doing to ensure that our rural communities will be able to keep up?"

Just last year, lawmakers — particularly those from more rural areas and Coley among them — balked at proposals to let school districts spend textbook funds on media technology because they worried that students did not have enough access to textbooks.

Those budget conversations in many ways laid the groundwork for this year's debate.

Simmons, at least, loves the idea. "When people across the nation look at Florida, they look to a Florida that is on the cutting edge, to be respected and looked up to," he said.

It makes sense, then, to look into how to make the move from spending about $220 million a year on paper books to a computerized format, he said.

"It is not something you do without planning."

DOE's proposal estimates the state would spend $700,000 a year to assist school districts and evaluate the materials. But it did not indicate how districts would pay for student computers or e-readers, much less make sure each student had access to online material.

Hillsborough County chief school technology officer David Steele said he would expect the initial costs of the conversion in the schools to be substantial.

But "where you save is on the replacement costs," Steele said. Even if a child loses his school-issued e-reader, "the price is barely more than one textbook," he said.

Pinellas school officials, who recently spent $1 million in outfitting schools with iPads, say if the state does adopt digital-only materials they will be better prepared having already dealt with replacing textbooks with Kindles at Clearwater High.

The first time all the students fired up their Kindles, they overwhelmed an AT&T cell tower, said John Just, assistant superintendent for management information systems.

It's also been hard to keep students away from inappropriate websites, he said, and some teachers have resisted the new format. "We answer that with training," Just said.

At the same time, Just also has heard from students about the benefits of using technology with a generation that practically lives digitally. Particularly struggling students.

On a recent visit to the campus, one student told Just, "this is the first time I ever read an entire book."