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TDSB considers replacing textbooks with e-books

Hard-copy textbooks came one step closer to going the way of the Walkman Wednesday, as calls began for the Toronto District School Board to embrace e-texts and other digital media.

The board stands to save dollars and trees if it learns to rely less on the dog-eared tomes that have been a mainstay of education for generations, said trustee Michael Coteau.

Late Wednesday night a board committee was still debating a motion brought forward by Mr. Coteau to introduce e-texts at Toronto schools.

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"There are some students in our schools now that don't have access to textbooks because there's not enough copies," said Mr. Coteau. "There's this huge opportunity that exists here [with e-books]and in many cases, it would be us catching up to our students."

Digital textbooks are less cumbersome than their hard-copy ancestors and easier to update - Pluto's demotion from planet to icy dwarf planet would require a simple edit rather than the complete replacement of science books.

The savings would be nearly immediate because the portable computers used to read e-books can store volumes of books but don't cost much more than a single textbook, Mr. Coteau said.

Rolling out e-books on a large scale could be difficult at a time when Ontario's Ministry of Education is cutting spending on both computers and textbooks, and though the iPod generation may be ready to embrace them, their less tech-savvy parents might not.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said a change-over is likely to come, but he's worried not enough families are equipped to make the switch to electronic textbooks or other digital media.

"I think that over time we are probably going to make a transition to more technology-based reading and learning for our students, but my fear is that at this point in time it may be a little premature," he said Wednesday.

TDSB chair Bruce Davis said he believed it is best for children to be surrounded by books, but that he looked forward to discussing the issue with trustees.

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"I believe in good old fashion books, but I also understand the need to debate the issue of moving to digital media," he said.

The educational tides seem to be turning toward digital learning. Mr. Coteau pointed to a school board in Quebec that has all-but eliminated hard-copy textbooks, and in November, students at a Toronto private school, the Blyth Academy, began learning from Sony e-Readers.

Teachers enjoy the e-Reader, said Blyth's director of development, Brandon Kerstens, because it makes it easy to link to word definitions, assignments and supplementary reading materials.

"Our students like it because it's just the cool thing to do, it's a gadget, and because it saves space for them," he said.

As publishers improve their digital textbooks options students are likely to see videos, web-links and other useful features embedded in their reading, Mr. Kerstens said.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced a program last year to have the cash-strapped state stop buying textbooks and instead give students free digital copies.

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Mr. Schwarzenegger's plan calls for the state to develop digital open source textbooks for high school math and science classes and make them available for free at public schools across California.

At least two U.S. schools, one in California and another in Minnesota, have already introduced iPads for students to replace textbooks in the classroom.

The belief is that the iPad offers features that will enhance the curriculum such as photos, access to newspapers and other resource material that a traditional textbook does not have.

American educators say the iPad is expected to save schools precious dollars because electronic textbooks cost only one-third as much as the printed versions.

With reports from Karen Howlett and The Canadian Press

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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