$7.7 Million in Online Textbooks Frustrate Virginia Parents, Teachers

Published November 24, 2012

FAIRFAX, VA. — A technological leap forward is taking Virginia’s largest school district backward, say critics of a new math program.

Fairfax County Public Schools’ decision to purchase $7.7 million in online textbooks surprised parents, who had been told the system had no money to spare, and is frustrating teachers and students who say the Internet-based system isn’t working for them.

“The ‘books’ cannot be put on a standalone reader, which means they won’t work on the most affordable devices like Kindles and Nooks. The materials are inaccessible in places without an Internet connection, and difficult to use in homes with multiple people all trying to access a single machine,” said Steve Greenberg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.

FCPS spokesman John Torre acknowledged glitches, but he said the Pearson materials were the most cost-effective option and selected through competitive bidding.

“An online textbook license is $11 less expensive than one hard-copy textbook,” he said, noting the district has not purchased math texts in 12 years.

Paper Tiger
Since classes resumed this fall, instructors have been burning through paper to provide hard-copy materials to students.

Oakton High School exhausted its October allotment of paper by day 10, said local Parent-Teacher Association president Kirsten Rucker.

“My children’s math teacher does not assign homework out of the text anymore, due to concerns of access,” Rucker said. “Ideally, our student population would have access to both an online and full-time, hard-copy text, but if we had to decide on just one, it would without question be the hard-copy text.… The digitized books are not at all user-friendly. I would be very comfortable using the term ‘user frustrating.'”

21st Century Learners
In a statement, Torre said the district “is committed to preparing our students to be 21st century learners, and incorporating online textbooks into instructional practices is one of the ways we are doing so.”

Publishers are telling schools the industry is moving from tangible to virtual textbooks “over the next few years,” he wrote.

This is about upper-level administrators recklessly attempting to look progressive,” Greenberg said. “It reflects incompetence at the highest levels.”

“It was done much too quickly,” agreed school board member Patty Reed, who voted against the purchase. “It wasn’t discussed in the context of the budget deliberations. It just kind of came out of the clear blue.”

Program Tweaks
The district previously tested an online program in seventh-grade history and high-school government classes at selected schools.

FCPS is considering buying print copies to address concerns about pupil access, Torre said. He also said publishers are working on a program to let students and teachers download the online texts—a function currently unavailable.

At a teachers’ meeting Nov. 14, Superintendent Jack Dale vowed to “make sure” every student who needs a hardbound math text will get one.

“Where will the money come from?” Greenberg asked.

Kenric Ward ([email protected]) is a reporter for the Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau, where this article first appeared. Reprinted with permission. 

Image by Brad Flickinger.