District may shelve textbooks

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

The textbook, an iconic learning tool, could be a relic sooner than you think.

It's especially true in Gwinnett County Public Schools, where education officials are giving new technology a test run in order to phase out the time-honored tomes.

Beginning this school year, officials plan to give six local schools a digital content "cloud" in which to teach students math, science and foreign language studies.

Over the course of three to five years, the school system has plans to fully incorporate eCLASS, which stands for Content, Learning, Assessment and Support System.

It's a program that officials said could cut costs and enhance the learning experience for students.

"Today's kids were practically born with computers in their hands," said Louise Radloff, vice-chairman of the school board. "If we didn't move ahead with this ... we'd be left behind."

The school board discussed the matter at a work session this month, listening to staff members speak to some of the positives.

Associate Superintendent Dale Robbins said the program is "at the heart of an effective classroom experience.

"It can transform learning by moving us from a hard-copy printed textbook environment to digital resources and interactive opportunities for problem-solving and decision-making," Robbins said.

Using eCLASS, student work can be "reviewed, graded and returned without the need for any paper to exchange hands."

Chief Information Officer Scott Futrell said digital content-based classrooms are the wave of the future. Gwinnett would be one of few systems incorporating the plan.

He said districts in Florida and Pennsylvania have considered going all digital, as well as the entire state of Hawaii.

"But none of them are looking at it as all encompassing as we're looking at it," Futrell said.

Incorporating the technology would be costly initially, said Chief Financial Officer Rick Cost. However, "the current model for textbook documents and textbook funding is not working," he said.

Textbooks normally run the district $25 million to 30 million each year that they allocate funding for them.

"With eCLASS, not only can we lower our overall cost, but also increase our return on investment," Cost said. "Our return on investment is an increase in student achievement."

Futrell said the program tracks student achievement and chronicles their progress for both the student and teacher.

Their progress would be recorded initially as "simply a red, green or yellow dot beside your name," Futrell said. "You can click on it and find out what made it turn yellow. For instance, attendance, homework, poor results on a test, and then you can click on the test and see what you missed on it."

He said students will at one point be allowed to "bring an authorized type of (computer or digital device) we can support" into the classroom. Then, they can "get on the network and only go to those places that are appropriate. They can only get to their digital content, their lesson plans and a place to turn in homework."

Digital content would be housed by the school system. However, students and teachers could also access "external cloud" libraries like NASA and Georgia Tech to tap into further content.

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said that at some point the board will formally move forward with eCLASS.

Until then, officials will watch and see how the pilot program works.