But in Brittany Shurley’s social studies classroom, there is cheerful banter as students engage in what they’re learning at Booker Middle School. There’s plenty to catch their interest.
Some days, the sixth-graders use Kindles and laptops to read their digital textbooks. They watch a National Geographic video on what it was like deep inside Egyptian tombs. Today, they are designing a magazine and scrolling the Internet for pictures on their devices.
“There’s so much we can’t do with just the flat book,” Shurley says.
The way students learn is dramatically changing as local school officials prepare for the possibility that thick paper textbooks might disappear. At a recent School Board workshop, Joe Binswanger warned textbooks and other instructional materials could be digital-only within the next five to eight years.
Binswanger, the Sarasota County district’s information technology director, later compared the district’s textbooks to the music industry.
Remember the 8-track? What about records, followed in line by cassettes and CDs? (Come to think of it, ever reminisce of those CD collector clubs?)
“That’s why you don’t see the music stores like you used to because people don’t go there to get their music anymore. They download it. And in similar fashion we’re watching that happen with books,” Binswanger said.
Already, Sarasota County schools are bracing for major changes.
With a price tag of about $1.5 million, the district is boosting its infrastructure for when more students log onto the Internet, Binswanger said.
It’s a remarkable investment considering that only two years ago, the district ban on students bringing cell phones and handheld devices from home was still intact. Sarasota County schools lifted it in 2012-13 school year, as long as teachers gave the OK in classrooms.
More devices, more bandwidth
In the majority of the county schools, four classrooms share a wireless access point in every building.
Only about 38 percent of the buildings rely on stronger coverage — one access point for each classroom, plus high-density coverage in the lunch room, media center and other gathering places.
By the end of this school year, the beefed-up coverage should be built throughout the entire district, Binswanger said.
In neighboring Manatee County, boosting infrastructure so schools are equipped to handle more devices also is an issue, said Diana Greene, the district’s deputy superintendent of instruction.
It become more pressing since the state requires Florida districts to spend at least 50 percent of their instructional material dollars on digital content by 2015-16, according to the Florida Department of Education.
“Currently, we’re probably almost at that point,” Greene said of the state law. But “it will take five to eight years before we can have our infrastructure completely ready for a one-to-one device. With the way technology is changing, it could be an iPad. It could be an iPhone … It could be a tablet. It could be a number of things.”
During a quick break from the Egyptian lesson, Shurley asks her students how many own cell phones. The majority of hands shoot in the air.
Several sixth-graders say they first started using smart phones at age 9, 10 or 11.
Taymilia Brown’s phone came around age 8, which made her “kinda special,” she says.
She watched funny videos and stayed in touch with her father when she moved away.
But the now-11-year-old also uses it for more serious purposes: She watched an instructional online video on multiplying fractions from the Khan Academy, a free Internet teaching tool.
Taymilia is what Shurley refers to as the “technology generation.”
For some young people, the desktop computer is rendered obsolete.
A kindergarten teacher recently observed she had seen students touching the computer screens because they thought they were iPads. They didn’t know what a mouse was.
In Manatee, officials want to tap into technology and expand it in elementary schools. A way to pay for that could be from a $30 million federal grant the district is vying for, Greene said.
At Booker Middle, Shurley says she already knows her students are connected to their technology. It’s an undeniable fact.
Her job is to teach them useful things they can do with that technology.
She encourages them to email each other for the Egyptian magazine project, write their articles on Microsoft Word and soon they will create their own PowerPoint presentations — things adults do in the real-life business world, she says.
“We need to set them up for success,” Shurley says. “If they don’t know to use (technology), it’s going to be a loss when they graduate.”
In Shurley’s class of 22 students, there’s a surplus of devices: 12 laptops and 12 Kindles to share.
But district officials are also grappling with what happens when the students go home.
What good is an online textbook if their parents can’t afford the Internet?
There are 14 Title 1 schools where high numbers of students receive free or reduced lunches because their families are low-economic status in Sarasota County. In Manatee, there are 24 such schools.
Booker Middle is on that list.
Shurley asks her students how many live near the library or McDonald’s, the beacons of free Internet. Again, many hands go up in her unofficial survey.
Binswanger also points out many families are “creative” with technology during tough financial times. Some, for example, use smart phones for their Internet instead of computers.
But he acknowledges, in a digital-only world, district officials must listen closely at the school-level to hear if teachers report children not doing homework simply because they can’t.
“Just being blunt, it’s something we’re going to have to continue to monitor,” Binswanger says.