A single pilot test of the Sony Reader saved the Campbell Union High School District nearly $720,000 in history textbook costs. With that kind of savings potential, what's not to love about electronic readers?
Very little, says Charles Kanavel, Campbell Union's director of technology, who reports phenomenal rewards from two years of e-reader pilot testing at the seven-school, 7,700-student district in San Jose, Calif.
The history textbook pilot, conducted during the 2010-2011 school year, came about when a teacher "wanted to focus one of his courses on U.S. case law," Kanavel explains. "The 50 cases he wanted to cover in class were spread over a dozen textbooks, which would've required purchasing 300 physical books at about $200 each. Instead, we paid a paralegal $200 to retrieve the case files electronically from a legal database. Then, we simply loaded the files onto the e-readers."
Beyond the tremendous savings, the e-readers streamlined teaching and learning. "Rather than shifting around a pile of heavy textbooks on their desks, the teacher and students could move fluidly between files in the reader," Kanavel continues. They also could annotate the text, "while the original remained as clean as the day we downloaded it."
At the Controls
Campbell Union's e-reader pilot program began two years ago, when it purchased 270 Sony Readers for roughly $200 each. The district chose the device not only for its cost-effectiveness, but also for its durability and platform openness. "Any type of electronic publication can be loaded onto it," Kanavel explains.
For that first pilot, Campbell's five-person IT team distributed the e-readers to ninth- through 12th-grade English classes at all district high schools. The devices were circulated unlocked so that students, if they wished, could seek out and load electronic versions of books outside the classroom.
"Historically, we've paid $9 a book for paperback copies of Macbeth; for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, [we've paid] $13 apiece," Kanavel says. But with the e-readers, these and other works of literature in the public domain could be downloaded at no cost.
The subject matter wasn't the only factor distinguishing the first pilot from the second. Whereas the 2009-2010 pilot tested e-reader usage among "all grades at all high schools," the 2010-2011 pilot focused on 300 at-risk sophomores and juniors at a single site. In addition to the cost savings, the history textbook pilot resulted in higher grades. "Students were more engaged, completed their homework at a higher rate and performed better," Kanavel says.
The Next Phase
Campbell Union will next pilot the Sony Readers this fall with nontraditional students participating in its Campbell Adult and Community Education program. "Adult education students use multiple types of content, not just books, and much of the coursework is self-study," Kanavel says. "We'll put content for all subjects on the e-readers, which will allow students to check out a single resource."
Sony's electronic format flexibility is particularly attractive for adult education, Kanavel continues, because coursework is set according to students' assessed needs, and therefore, the source material is very diverse.
The Sony Reader makes it possible to provide students with the latest content in PDF, "EPUB" (electronic publication) and Microsoft Word formats, he adds.
Perhaps the only downside to Campbell Union's pilot programs, Kanavel says, was that some teachers initially misunderstood what the devices were intended to do. "Some thought they were receiving a tablet," he explains, "so it's important to manage perceptions effectively. In our case, we explained the goal was to replace textbooks, not to provide computers, which are considerably more expensive."
Textbook availability is also an ongoing frustration. But Kanavel sees a resolution on the horizon. "When I look down the road five years, I believe everything will be available," he says. "Sooner or later, publishers will be forced to develop a viable electronic textbook pricing model because people will demand it."
Despite these hurdles, Kanavel is impressed by e-reader technology and values the results they've generated for his district. "The magnitude of the savings was our biggest surprise," he says. "The devices already have paid for themselves, several times over."
Up, Up and Away
Campbell Union isn't alone in its adoption of e-readers, says David Renard, an analyst with mediaIDEAS, a New York-based media research firm. "We're seeing many schools accepting, adopting or supporting e-reader devices," he confirms. "We also expect to see a wider range of books, including textbooks, available in e-reader formats as the average price falls below $100 over the next two years, and as color e-readers come to market later this year."
For now, Renard recommends that school districts select their e-reader of choice based on several factors. "Look at content availability, distribution method and device functionality," he says. "In addition, it's important to consider vendor vision and viability – does the vendor have a dependable device development plan? – and price."
Platform openness drove sixth-grade teacher Paula Epker to adopt the Sony Reader for use in her English and reading classes at Hannibal Middle School in Missouri. Epker especially valued the device's security features, which can be configured to prevent students from downloading unapproved content. "The Sony must be hooked to a computer to purchase books," she says. "Plus, I wanted a model that allowed students to highlight content and that had a built-in dictionary."
Epker acquired her e-readers last year to relieve overcrowding on her classroom bookshelves. Hannibal Public Schools lacked the financial resources to pay for the devices, so with her principal's approval, Epker joined DonorsChoose.org, an online charity that allows patrons to support classrooms in need. With the two grants she received through the site, Epker purchased six e-readers to pilot in her classroom.
The devices' many benefits soon became apparent, she says. "Buying one book is like buying six," she explains. "Also, it's immediate: If my students are talking about a new book, I can instantly obtain six copies for a lit group that very day. Plus, kids love technology. So combining the love of technology with the love of books just makes sense."
Epker actually tested two types of e-readers, but her students prefer the Sony Reader. "The touch-screen models are checked out the most," she confirms.
When using the devices, Epker encountered only one significant challenge: She found that her students needed to be able to see a book's front and back covers to decide whether it was something they wanted to read. So she printed images of all of the covers and assembled them in a binder as a reference. "Now, students can browse the covers before checking out an e-reader," she says.
Given the success she's had with e-readers, Epker urges all educators to follow suit. "Get started now, don't wait," she says. "I look forward to having an entire class set of e-readers so that in the future, every student can have one – all the time."
Buy the Book
Two Sony Reader pilots in two years have significantly reduced Campbell Union High School District's content-acquisition and textbook-replacement costs.
"Out of 350 e-readers, we've replaced fewer than 10," says Charles Kanavel, director of technology. "That's less than 3 percent."
Compare that to the California district's hardcover textbook replacement ratio, which stands at about 15 percent.
It's even higher for paperbacks, Kanavel adds, noting that "70 to 80 percent come back in unusable condition at the end of the school year."
To minimize e-reader attrition, the district requires parents to sign release forms before allowing students to check out the devices.
Losing or damaging a $200 e-reader isn't so bad, however, when one considers the costs of replacing a backpack full of print textbooks. "On average, if a backpack is lost or soaked by rain, the books cost $800 to replace," Kanavel says.