Cover story - Broken spines

20th February 2009 at 00:00
Traditional texts are disappearing from library shelves as learning materials go electronic. Does this spell the final chapter for the book?

When the new Hackney City Academy opens its doors this September, one thing will be conspicuous by its absence. To be more accurate, several hundred things will be missing. In Hackney City's vision for education, there is no longer room for lockers.

Mark Emmerson, principal of the east London school, has deemed them unnecessary for one simple reason: children don't need anywhere to store their textbooks because they won't be issued with any. Instead, the books will be available digitally, so pupils can download them to their computers or mobiles.

For Mr Emmerson, setting up a new school offers an opportunity to deploy the latest technology. In other schools, e-books are providing a new way of encouraging children to read. Alongside this is a debate over the future of traditional school libraries as the internet becomes children's main - and frequently only - research tool. But as new digital alternatives consolidate their hold in education, it raises the question of what role old-fashioned books will play in the schools of the future.

At Hackney City, Mr Emmerson insists there will still be a place for books - the school will have a well-stocked library and every pupil will have to carry a reading book at all times - but he says moving to digital technology has wider benefits than saving children from carrying books and using lockers.

Cost is one: a site licence for an online textbook is around pound;300, cheaper than kitting out a class of 30 with a pound;12 "real" textbook each. Service agreements also typically mean if a new edition comes out within three years, the digital version is automatically updated. No longer will teachers find their texts are out of date, or that half the class has the second edition. Saving children's backs is another advantage. A 14-year- old's schoolbag weighs a stone and a half on average, according to a 2005 survey.

Mr Emmerson says digital textbooks are easier to set up than a virtual learning environment (VLE) and are simpler to use. Teachers will still have a hard copy of the textbook, but the digital version means they can readily incorporate graphs, diagrams and text in PowerPoint presentations. "This is the way forward, but it doesn't mean the end of books," he says. "It is not about taking books away - it is about adding value through digital content."

He recognises that not everyone sees it this way. "There is a knee-jerk reaction and people say you're a heretic, but it is about having a mixed economy and there are so many advantages to working in this way," he says.

Evidence of this reaction came last year when the Campaign for the Book was launched. One of its first targets was The Meadows Community School in Chesterfield, when it emerged the school was axing the post of learning centre manager. In a letter to the headteacher, Philip Pullman, the children's author, said a library with dedicated staff should be at the heart of an educational institution. "Are you going to relegate the whole activity of reading fiction to the status of a trivial and innocuous activity?" he wrote.

There are others with a vested interest. The school textbook market is worth around Pounds 200 million a year, but is made up of both print and digital resources, according to the Publishers' Association (PA). Graham Taylor, its director of educational publishing, says the market for digital content reached a plateau four years ago after several years of steady growth, but the distinction between the two sectors is increasingly blurred.

"It doesn't make any sense to talk about print versus digital any more," he says. "The packages publishers put together now have a variety of components, some of which might be pure digital, but most have a print component. That is still what schools spend most of their money on."

But research carried out for the PA suggests that, increasingly, books can expect to play second fiddle. A survey of school leadership teams in 2007 found that 4 per cent of them in primary schools saw books as their key learning resource, compared with 14 per cent who named learning platforms, and another 8 per cent who cited digital content.

In secondaries, just 2 per cent cited books as their key resource, compared with 24 per cent who said learning platforms, and 10 per cent digital content. Interactive whiteboards were also popular, picked by 15 per cent of primary school leaders and 18 per cent in secondaries.

It is not just textbooks that are moving to digital. Anything - from primary reading material to classic literature - is now increasingly available on a variety of electronic readers, or e-books. After five years of working with e-books in schools, Dave Whyley, a consultant with Wolverhampton City Council's Learning2Go project, believes they can encourage reluctant children to read. He cites the experience of one primary school last term where pupils were asked to read a story online in instalments. The assumption was that they would download the episodes over the Christmas holidays, but in fact they read them all within a week.

Children's reading habits have changed and the way they acquire information has changed," says Mr Whyley, himself a former headteacher. "We are providing a personalised approach to get them hooked on reading. We don't want to replace real books, but we need to appreciate that youngsters today are not automatically turned on to traditional print books."

E-books allow teachers to highlight words or put notes and questions in the text, cut and paste passages and add hyperlinks to other resources. They also give children an opportunity to record themselves reading and create their own e-books, which can be posted on to the school's website for other pupils to read.

Year 5 and 6 pupils at Trinity Primary in New Park, Wolverhampton, are putting together digital storybooks for Year 3 and 4 pupils. The school started using e-books as alternatives to class readers four years ago, but teachers are now exploiting the interactive features to aid comprehension.

Icons in the text alert the pupils to notes and questions, and the children can also insert their own notes. So when new words recur, a click will take them back to the definition they downloaded earlier. "It has given the children a lot more confidence and their vocabulary is widening," says Matthew Welton, a Year 6 teacher and deputy head.

But the biggest impact has been in encouraging children to swap books. Bluetooth technology allows the handheld readers to connect to each other, so pupils can "beam" books they think are "sick", or cool, to as many as six others at a time.

"Normally you can only get them to do two or three book reviews in a half- term, but now they are beaming books across to their friends, they are reading a lot more," says Mr Welton.

Despite the popularity of the new gadgets, Mr Welton says books still have a place in school. While interactive features mean e-books may aid comprehension, books still have the attractions of ownership and portability. "I don't think technology is ever going to replace them, but it's using different tools for different purposes," he says.

At St Joseph's Junior School in Swansea, e-books have been put to use helping children who have English as a second language. Polish support staff record themselves on the readers for the benefit of the large contingent of Polish pupils, so when support staff are not available, the children still have a Polish translation of the English text to hand.

"They are able to read independently, without waiting for someone to help them," says Cerian Appleby, IT co-ordinator and Year 3 teacher.

She says the visual and eye-catching functions of the readers - changing text size and colours and adding illustrations - have been useful in encouraging reluctant readers, especially boys. Allowing them to create their own e-books is an extra incentive. "They're not only able to learn by doing it - they have the satisfaction of knowing that other people are reading their work," says Ms Appleby. "It's no longer static. You can have animated pictures and sounds and suddenly the book comes to life."

At Minster School in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, rather than e-books, it is a digital learning platform that provides an alternative to the printed word. Pupils can download resources that teachers put on the system, including sound files and PowerPoint presentations. Paul Stevens, the assistant head, says the next step is for the school to create its own content. "The big advantage is that you can personalise the learning," he says.

Minster has also started recording lessons as an animation, with the teacher providing a narration. So far, it has been trialled in ICT and business studies lessons, and some maths classes. Mr Stevens believes textbooks still have a place, but the days of reading and answering questions from textbooks may be numbered. "The modern pupil is very adept at reading instructions on screen and following them through," he says.

Rising Stars, one of the largest publishers of digital content in the education market, has seen interest in digital content rise sharply in the past 12 months. While the ability to increase font size and add sound can be particularly useful for children with special needs, e-books have near- universal appeal.

"The vast majority of children are more than happy to access text on a screen," says Andrea Carr, managing director of Rising Stars. "The potential for e-books is wide-ranging. Children will be able to carry around several books at a time - perhaps one for GCSE and one for pleasure."

But whereas those who read for pleasure may still prefer printed books, she suggests the versatility of digital versions means it is a different story in schools. "It is increasingly hard to see how paper-based books will continue to have a position in the classroom in terms of teaching and learning," she says. Ms Carr believes the trend towards digital content will accelerate as more teachers and senior managers become comfortable with the technologies. "Change can happen very quickly," she says.

Andy Black, technology research manager at Becta, the education technology agency, believes we are approaching a tipping point, with digital resources about to make the leap from a few pace-setting schools to ubiquity. The past 18 months have seen high-profile new entrants to the non-school market in the form of the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle, although the latter is not yet available in the UK, and it is only a matter of time before this development gives e-books a critical mass.

There are some disadvantages. One is the price. E-readers cost about pound;200 each for consumers and schools at present. E-books also have limited battery life and are only now starting to overcome problems with screen glare, which has made them difficult to read. "They're in a very small percentage of schools at the moment, but it is starting to reach a critical point," says Mr Black.

One big advantage is that digital books are fully searchable - a particularly useful feature for textbooks. "We're at a very interesting stage where the technology may embed itself, but at the moment it is an emerging picture," he adds.

Many school libraries have long since converted to learning resource centres, with books already sharing space with computers, but there are fears that even the remaining bookshelves could be at risk. Research carried out by Loughborough University reveals that expenditure of the School Library Service fell from pound;12.4m in 200304 to pound;10.8m in 200506.

Alan Gibbons, the children's author who launched Campaign for the Book, says while he acknowledges that the internet offers instant access to a vast source of information, the risk is that children won't be able to judge if the sites they are using are unreliable.

"Some schools are going overboard to encourage the copy-and-paste and Google generation," he says. "It means children are engaging in superficial learning - they're not interacting with the information and critically examining it."

He says libraries are in danger of becoming squeezed out as schools are more attracted by the idea of buying the latest gadget than spending money on books. "There is erosion at the margins, but the book is still the best technology available for somebody to get enthusiastic about reading," says Mr Gibbons.

Joy Court, of CILIP, the librarians' professional body, believes that librarians play a crucial role in teaching children how to find and evaluate information, rather than relying on the results of a Google search. "A library gives young people the skills to become independent learners," she says.

A t the Mea-dows, Lynn Asquith, the head-teacher at the centre of some of the recent controversy, insists the school is not moving away from books, but looking at how they can be used alongside digital technology. "When you talk to students about why they don't use the library to take out fiction books, a lot of them say they want to have the latest book in their hands as soon as possible, and inevitably a school can't buy one or two hundred copies," she says.

The school is spending pound;90,000 on its learning and resource centre, although the mix of digital and print resources won't be decided until the results of a consultation beginning this month are known.

But for Mrs Asquith, there is no question of books being phased out. On the contrary, she says, they are looking at different ways of using books.

One option is inspired by the Government's scheme to give every Year 7 pupil a reading book. Last year, the school's English department ran a scheme in which pupils could swap the books among themselves. The result was that the children read more books. This year, the school is hoping to explore the possibility of buying extra books and running an online swap shop. "There is a role for books, but we have got to be realistic about what that role is," says Mrs Asquith.

Tricia Adams, director of the School Library Association, insists that libraries can still thrive, as long as they have the support of senior management. "It is a very mixed picture," she says. "You hear about schools getting rid of libraries, but there are huge strides being made in some schools."

Digital sources may be more appropriate for some non-fiction texts, but are unlikely to supplant the printed versions for fiction and picture books. "School libraries should be a mix of online and book resources," says Ms Adams. She believes it is too soon to write off books, even for the Google generation. "I don't mind what they're reading - if they're reading, they will come back to books," she says.

Proof that school libraries can thrive comes from the Werneth School in Stockport. Librarian Nikki Heath says the past four years have seen a 40 per cent increase in book lending. She attributes much of this to a range of activities, including reading groups, author visits and competitions. "We try anything we can think of to get them in," she says. "There are still ways of getting children to read."

Ms Heath says e-books should not be seen as a threat, but another way of encouraging reading, and that it will be a long time before they replace the printed version altogether. "Books are more portable, they're not as expensive and there is the whole feel and smell of a book," she says.

Until e-book developers can mimic the touch and aroma of a book, perhaps they won't be consigned to history altogether.

Positively different

A group of struggling readers was offered an opportunity to see if e-books would make a difference at Oak Hill First School in Redditch, Worcestershire. Marie Buckland, the deputy head, selected eight Year 3 boys to join the project last term. All were at the bottom end of the level 1 spectrum of the national curriculum.

Books were downloaded on to PDAs (personal digital assistants) issued to the boys and used in guided reading lessons. The e-books allowed teachers and children to highlight key words, and the children could also record themselves reading. After one term, six out of the eight children had moved up one national curriculum sub-level. The two who did not were poor attenders. Surveys completed before and after the project showed their attitude towards reading had become more positive.

"The technology was a real motivating factor for the boys, and they liked the fact that they could manipulate the text, so they could highlight words, or underline them," she says.

"They still come to me two or three times a week asking for print books from our library, without me prompting them."

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