Vice-Principal for Academics and Curriculum for Archbishop Stepinac High School, Frank Portanova, never expected that 11 years after he started working at the school, he’d watch the 700 ninth to 12th grade students hit the books—completely online. But this year, Portanova presided over a transition that did just that—turning the school’s entire textbook collection to a digital library.
“Now, they don’t have to wheel 80-pound book bags,” he says. “It was like they were going to catch a flight.”
Students at the White Plains, New York-based private school for boys have traditionally paid for their own textbooks, at $600 a year. Today, the cost is $150—a 75 percent decrease that has parents cheering, says Portanova, as well as kids. Just five boys made the choice to buy print copies of their textbooks this year, he estimates, with the majority embracing the digital transition. Portanova says that the move opens the doors to students independently pursuing more in depth research such as looking at how one lesson, like the quadratic equation, can be found in other disciplines like physics.
“If they’re intellectually curious, they can go into search functions,” he says. “They can also go back to earlier years to get more explanations.”
Digital textbook, or e-textbook, adoption has been slow to grow. Digital textbook start-up Inkling let go of 25 percent of its staff in early May—although the company was a direct-to-consumer play, rather than a publisher selling titles from its own library such as Pearson, the publisher with which Stepinac worked to grow its online textbook library. As some schools start to move toward more e-textbooks, they’re stepping in new terrain for themselves—and sometimes for publishers as well.they sold to people.Pearson sells to schools.
Archbishop Molloy High School in New York City took some lessons from Stepinac before launching their own transition, which they plan to launch with their freshman class for the upcoming 2014–15 school year. Most of the materials for Molloy’s students are coming from Pearson as well. But a few are coming from outside publishers, including a Spanish program and a music program from McGraw Hill. As those titles weren’t on New York City’s Department of Education’s approval list for e-textbooks—which supplies grant money for some of the books used at Molloy, says the school—the school had to find a work-around. That meant buying print copies, with McGraw Hill agreeing to give them the licenses for e-textbooks for the next six years.
“We’re charting new territory,” says Dorothy Denoto, director of library services at Molloy. “Eventually we don’t want to buy any print books.”
At Molloy, the cost for this upcoming first year is coming to $80,000 just for the materials, says Denoto. The school is absorbing the charges for the e-textbooks, rather than having students pay for them and is also supplying every freshman with an iPad to access the materials online—with ninth graders paying a tech fee for the devices as the school is leasing them.
Portanova notes that while it appeared that Stepinac moved their entire library online for the 2013-2014 school year at once, the transition actually took five years, including getting the school’s infrastructure up to speed with bandwidth, wireless access points in every room and hallway, and professional development for faculty so they were familiar with the e-textbooks.
The cost came to about $1 million, paid for out of the school’s operating budget as well as donations from alumni. Portanova says schools come in and think they’re going to make the transition with a snap of their fingers—only to realize how much work went into getting the program off the ground fairly seamlessly. And Portanova notes that even with their own preparation, he still has some tinkering to do.
“This summer we need to add more charging stations,” he says. “With 700 kids, we need charging stations in the cafeteria. I didn’t plan for that.”