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Follow Florida's Lead: Why More States Should Switch to Digital Textbooks in Schools Now

All of Florida's public schools will switch to digital textbooks by 2015. Yes, it sounds expensive, but other states should be following suit.

It seems like digital textbooks have been the next big thing for years, but, with a few isolated exceptions, they haven't exactly been embraced by schools. That's about to change in Florida thanks to the gutsy passage of a law requiring all public schools in the state to make the switch to e-textbooks by the 2015-16 school year. Critics are a bit freaked out over this decision because education budgets are already tight and e-readers aren't free. But it's about time school districts make the move.

Admittedly, digital textbooks don't look like a great deal right now. On top of having to shell out a few hundred dollars for a Kindle, Nook, or iPad, you then have to pay for the digital textbooks themselves, and they're generally only about $10 cheaper than their hardback counterparts. That's because the bulk of publisher's production costs come from paying researchers and writers, not printing.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't begin the transition. Florida districts have four years to figure this out, and the price of e-readers will drop even more during that time. After all, the devices are already half as expensive as they were just a couple of years ago. Even if the price of e-readers doesn't halve again, there are plenty of other ways districts will save megabucks by making the switch. And digital textbooks may get cheaper too if the format makes it easier for editions to be updated year after year.

Furthermore, e-readers wouldn't only be used for textbooks. Classic books, which are mainstays of middle and high school English classes, often have expired copyrights and are therefore part of the public domain. They can be downloaded for free. Instead of schools having to buy new class sets of The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird year after year, each new group of students can simply download a copy without spending a dime.

Schools also spend significant money replacing damaged or lost textbooks, and paying the shipping costs to get those heavy boxes of books to the school site. E-readers take away those expenses completely since a dog can eat a hardback math book, but it can't chew up a digital one. But what if the family dog chews up the e-reader, or the student somehow loses or damages it? Schools will obviously need to teach kids how to take care of their technology—basics like not using your e-reader when you're eating or drinking—and will need to ensure that every child has a protective case. But those are lessons kids are learning, or at the very least should learn, anyway. Many have grown up with laptops and smartphones.

To cover for cases when a costly piece of equipment is damaged, parents will probably need to pay some sort of minimal insurance fee. At Clearwater High School in Clearwater, Florida, which piloted an entirely digital book system this year, parents had to pay a $20 insurance fee.

Parents might not mind shelling out that $20 if it means they can save money by not having to send their kid to the doctor because of back pain. Student pain due to hauling around heavy textbooks is actually a serious issue for kids. One USA Today study found that New York second graders haul around an average of 5.3 pounds a day in their backpacks. I believe it. My own second grader constantly complains about the weight of his backpack.

By the time students get to sixth grade, the weight of the books and supplies they're dragging around increases to 18.4 pounds. At the middle and high school level, given that students don't always have a locker, or the time to get to it between passing periods, teens are carrying around that much weight all day long.

E-readers only look like a bad idea in the most short-sighted analysis. Florida students are lucky their state is making the switch. The rest of the country's schools should be following suit.

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