Some Lawrence teachers concerned about equal access with digital textbooks

In math classes at Lawrence High School, students are snapping pictures with their cellphones.

They aren’t goofing around.

The students are taking photographs of pages in their textbooks so they can do their homework.

This school year, the Lawrence district has rolled out a new model in some math and history classes in which, instead of checking out a textbook to each student, there is a “classroom set” consisting of 13 books. The books stay in the classroom at all times and serve hundreds of students.

Each student has a downloadable, digital version of the textbook. But with equal access to reliable computers and Internet connections variable, some teachers say the model creates inequity for low-income students.

“The idea was to have digital access if they have a device, but not all the kids in those classes have access,” said Pam Fangohr, head of the LHS math department. Fangohr, who has been teaching for more than 30 years, explained students who don’t have consistent access to computers outside of school are forced to view the digital textbooks on the small screens of their cellphones, or take pictures of pages in class for reference later.

“I would like to have a district employee try to do their math homework on a cellphone, because this is so inequitable,” she said. “We are not being fair to our kids.”

Approximately 20 percent of classes, content areas or courses districtwide are currently using digital content, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning Angelique Nedved said in an email. As the district transitions to more digital content, it is investigating how many paper books are needed, Nedved said.

Specifically, this school year, the classroom sets and digital content model went into effect with some new curriculums, including advanced placement history at the high schools and algebra I at the four middle schools and both high schools, according to Lawrence schools Superintendent Rick Doll. The model requires that students use laptops or tablets both in class and at home. Doll recognized the importance of access to devices with use of classroom sets.

“From an equity standpoint, we need to make sure these kids that don’t have a device get one checked out to them through the school,” Doll said.

Currently at LHS, in addition to computers that remain in the building, there are 10 laptops and 10 portable Wi-Fi hotspots students can check out and take home for 10 school days, said Charlotte Anderson, LHS library media specialist.

There are 16 algebra I classes of about 20 to 25 students at LHS — amounting to more than 300 students total in algebra I, and approximately 1,500 students in total at the school — and the limited numbers of devices for checkout isn’t enough to account for those without reliable access to a computer at home, Fangohr said.

“It may be that they have a computer, but there may be two and three siblings at home, so as a parent, how do you choose which kid gets to use the Internet?” she said.

Despite a practice of “bring your own device” to school, many students may not have their own computer or one that they are allowed to bring, Fangohr said. In addition to students sharing textbooks while in class, another remedy LHS teachers are using is photocopying textbook pages to use during instruction and to send home with students. The problem with that is it singles out kids who don’t have adequate resources, Fangohr said.

“Students are embarrassed to tell us that they don’t have Internet at home, so you’re calling out these students,” she said. “The kids can see around the room. They can see who has to have a paper copy, who is taking pictures. They’re embarrassed.”

“And we’re going through paper like it’s water,” Fangohr added, noting that may negate one of the benefits of digital texts, which is using less paper.

Benefits of digital textbooks

Despite only currently being in place for 20 percent of classes districtwide, digital content will increase in the future. As curriculum is updated at all grade levels, the district does “new resource adoptions,” Doll said, in which it buys the digital resource along with the 13 textbooks.

“The advantage of that is when you buy a paper textbook, those are outdated immediately,” Doll said, explaining that in contrast, a digital resource is being continually updated.

Nedved, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said that teachers throughout the district have indicated several advantages of using digital content. One benefit they have noted is that because digital textbooks can be updated with new information in “near-real-time,” they give students the latest, up-to-date information on the topic they are studying.

“Combine the latest information with hyperlinks to related topics, and one can see that the digital book is much more dynamic than its paper counterpart,” she said.

Another advantage teachers have noted is student personalization, or the ability to take notes in the margins, highlight important text or prompt the computer to read a passage aloud, Nedved said. Teachers also can customize some digital textbooks by adding in quizzes, assignments or relevant local information.

“Digital textbooks can bring concepts to life in ways a paper textbook cannot,” she said. For example, in a geology class, students could watch a video taken by a drone of a glacial valley, as opposed to viewing a two-dimensional diagram or photo in a paper textbook.

More low-income students attend LHS

According to Kansas State Department of Education data from last school year, about 42 percent of LHS students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, compared with 29 percent at Free State High School and 39 percent districtwide. For a student to qualify for free or reduced-price meals, they must meet income eligibility guidelines based on federally set poverty levels for each state.

Fangohr said the more low-income students, the harder classroom sets and digital content are to accommodate. While most students may indicate they have a “device,” some students don’t have technology beyond their smartphone. The small screen makes the text a lot more difficult to interact with, and smartphones are often subject to a limited amount of data usage per month, Fangohr explained.

Matt Ellis, who also teaches math at LHS, said that when some of his fellow math teachers did an anonymous poll of their students using index cards, about 20 percent indicated they had consistent access to both a computer (not a smartphone) and Internet at home.

“If our district had enough iPads or MacBooks, then it would make sense to have this discussion with digital textbooks,” Ellis said. “I think we’re trying to be too cutting edge too fast, without having the resources.”

The possibility of more computers

While an official student-device ratio in the district is currently being tabulated and should be available this week, Doll said, the hope is to someday soon have that ratio at one-to-one.

Fangohr said that while she can see some of the advantages of digital textbooks, in order for them to benefit students, reliable access to a computer and the Internet need to be guaranteed.

“We have to go one-to-one,” she said, noting that in the meantime, teachers are going to try to make it work. “I worry about the failures of these kids if they aren’t going to go home and do their homework.”

Doll noted that a few nearby districts have adopted a one-to-one ratio, and that the district will consider doing so, especially as more digital content is added. In the short term, if the 10 portable Wi-Fi hotspots currently being piloted at LHS are helpful, Doll said the district will buy more.

“The frustration for teachers (in moving to digital content) — we’re going to solve that by getting those kids devices,” Doll said.