At Empire High School in Vail, Ariz., students use computers provided by the school to get their lessons, do their homework and hear podcasts of their teachers’ science lectures.
Down the road, at Cienega High School, students who own laptops can register for “digital sections” of several English, history and science classes. And throughout the district, a Beyond Textbooks initiative encourages teachers to create — and share — lessons that incorporate their own PowerPoint presentations, along with videos and research materials they find by sifting through reliable Internet sites.
Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions — or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.
“Kids are wired differently these days,” said Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La. “They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite.
“They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote,” Dr. Abshire continued. “Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks.”
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this summer announced an initiative that would replace some high school science and math texts with free, “open source” digital versions.
With California in dire straits, the governor hopes free textbooks could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
And given that students already get so much information from the Internet, iPods and Twitter feeds, he said, digital texts could save them from lugging around “antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks.”
The initiative, the first such statewide effort, has attracted widespread attention, since California, together with Texas, dominates the nation’s textbook market.
Many superintendents are enthusiastic.
“In five years, I think the majority of students will be using digital textbooks,” said William M. Habermehl, superintendent of the 500,000-student Orange County schools. “They can be better than traditional textbooks.”
Schools that do not make the switch, Mr. Habermehl said, could lose their constituency.