It's the final chapter for bulky textbooks
Learning on an iPad or netbook will soon be the norm -- and the cost is reasonable. Kim Bielenberg reports
Thousands of Irish school pupils have ditched paper textbooks this year in favour of computers and e-books.
We are now at last seeing signs that the age of the digital classroom has arrived, and it may not be as costly as school authorities feared.
Laptops, iPads and netbooks are finally reaching a critical mass in schools.
There are 27 schools around the country taking part in an initiative, led by Irish publisher Edco, where they use e-books. Other publishers are also selling digital versions of their texts.
By the middle of this decade the old-fashioned paper textbook could be in peril.
Eventually students will no longer be able to say that their dog ate the homework (unless the mutt munches electronic gadgets).
Edco promises savings of 21 pc to those using e-books rather than the paper versions, but there are other cost implications of the switchover. Parents or schools have to pay for the equipment.
Those in favour of this digital revolution promise many benefits.
Pupils will have lighter school bags, and it is hoped that a generation born in the age of the internet will find it easier to concentrate when working on computers.
The move to the digital classroom requires a radical change in thinking among teachers, principals and education officials.
Some schools and education bureaucrats are ill-prepared for the change.
Schools may be struggling to keep up with technological change, but publishers are busy converting to an online world.
One of the world's leading education publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), employs 300 people in Dublin working on e-learning.
Fiona O'Carroll, senior vice-president of HMH, says: "There are many Irish schools that are still like dinosaurs when it comes to technology in the classroom.
"They might just have 12 computers shut away in a lab somewhere and a couple of printers that don't work.''
The publishing executive says that within a few years every student should be learning using some kind of mobile device.
Their information will be stored using cloud computing (course material and notes are kept online).
Fiona O'Carroll says Irish education authorities should learn from the example of other countries, such as South Korea, which has wildly ambitious targets.
The country is ditching dead-tree text books completely. By 2015 every child will work on a tablet computer or other mobile device.
O'Carroll says students should no longer be expected to learn without technology.
"They are living in a colour world with mobile devices. Then we send them to old-fashioned classrooms it is like moving into a black-and-white world.''
In Ireland, individual schools and local VECs (Vocational Education Committees) have shown themselves more nimble when it comes to going digital than central Government, which has been slow to implement a nationwide strategy.
Among the issues that need to be addressed are: the cost of the equipment, the training of teachers and technical support.
Teachers warn that handing out laptops without good broadband connections is like giving someone a car without roads.
To get around this many e-books can be loaded on to the laptops or netbooks.
They can therefore be accessed without an internet connection.
In 12 schools run by the VEC in Co Galway, hard-copy textbooks are being phased out.
Ciaran Folan, technology adviser with the VEC, believes that the use of netbooks instead of paper text books is "cost neutral''.
At the 12 Galway schools, each student pays ¿100 for the use of a netbook for five years.
They also pay an annual maintenance charge of ¿20, and an annual charge (typically between ¿50 and ¿110) for downloaded material.
In the first three years of secondary school, a student can therefore expect to pay a total of ¿300 to ¿400. That is broadly in line with the cost of the paper books.
Students can use the netbooks at home. So, they may save on the cost of a computer.
"Generally we would find that the use of the netbook can make students more engaged with their work,'' says Ciaran Folan of Co Galway VEC.
"It has resulted in an improvement in attendance.''
Martina Harford, chief executive of publishers Edco, said the e-book versions of textbooks come with a lot of extra features.
"If we get to a passage about volcanoes, we don't just have text and pictures. We can show volcanoes erupting.''
Students can add in notes near the text, highlight certain passages, create bookmarks and listen to podcasts.
Bringing mobile devices into classrooms may raise the interest levels of disengaged pupils, but it is no panacea, according to John Lawlor, an education researcher based in Trinity College.
Lawlor is director of Bridge 21, an initiative aimed at creating a new type of classroom in schools.
"Our schools are still run on Victorian lines.
"There is no point in giving each student a laptop and having them all sitting in rows, listening to a teacher.
"We need a new type of learning where you might have teams working together on a computer.
"With technology self-directed learning becomes more important. So, the role of the teacher is different.
"Students should no longer be relying on a text books.
"There is a whole wealth of other material that should be available.''