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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Clearwater High Principal Keith Mastorides about e-readers and textbooks

Mastorides Clearwater High School Principal Keith Mastorides announced this week his plan to say goodbye to textbooks and instead arm every student and teacher with an e-reader loaded with the reading materials students need. The Gradebook's Rebecca Catalanello talked more with Mastorides about the strategy and the school-level decision making policy that made it possible.

If you prefer, listen to the complete 10-minute interview: Tell me again how you got the idea to put an e-reader in every student’s hands.

There’s several things. One is our district is using Decentralized Decision Making, a new process that Dr. (Julie) Janssen has started. The idea behind it is principals have a little more flexibility in reference to budgets and processes within the school. And there’s a process that we go through if we want to make a change, we submit a request for that. That’s one piece of it.

The second piece is every year our school does a survey like all the others and from the community, the students, the staff, always mentions on there we need to find a way to integrate more technology. If you look at kids today, they think differently than you and I when we went to school. When we went to school, when we sat down to write a paper, we would do it with pen and paper first. We would eventually get to a typewriter or some kind of a device to have it printed out.

The kids today start on a computer. Two-thirds of their time is spent on technology, whether it be phones, computers, iPods. It’s the way of today. Kids today think differently and we needed to find ways to capture that and bring it in as opposed to pushing it off as so many of us do in education.

So, initially we were looking at computers. But we realized quickly that computers were way too expensive. Yeah, you could find one for $200 or $300. But by the time you put all the software on it, get the wireless network and all the pieces you need, you were at $1,000 a piece. So it was not cost effective. There was no way you could do anything like that. So we started looking at what were the things we really wanted. We wanted to be able to put textbook comments. That was one piece. Another piece was that we wanted kids to be able to have some internet capability. We don’t necessarily need color pictures and flash and video and that kind of stuff. But we wanted them to get basic information so that if they’re doing a research paper, they can find it. We also wanted them to be able to look up grades and attendance and be able to send messages back and forth to the teachers.

So, looking at all this, we realized that many of the e-readers have those capabilities. One of the ones we’re still looking at is the Kindle. We’re still in negotiation with them to determine the price and if they aren’t going to give us the best price, we’re also looking at the Sony e-reader and The Nook at this point as well. One of the pieces that the Kindle has that’s huge is the internet capability. And not only is it wireless but there’s no need to connect any wi-fi system. It uses its own Whispernet, which is a 3G network. So the books are automatically placed on there through that Whispernet technology. The kids can look up internet, it’s a mobile internet, so they can look it up and find information that way. Teachers now, if they want to give an assignment to their class for homework to look something up, every single one of their kids can do it. Previously, that wasn’t the case. If they gave a research paper and said find some information on the internet, they’d have to find another way to do it. Possibly go to the library, a friend’s house. Now, all the kids have internet.

Did you look at the iPad?

Yes, we did look at the iPad. But it doesn’t have the 3G network and it’s much more expensive. If Apple wanted to look at finding a better price for education, we’d love to talk with them. But at $500 for the cheapest one without any software on it – there are apps for that, but it doesn’t have all the pieces we need. We’d love to talk to Apple if they could give us a better price, but at $500 a piece, we just can’t afford them.

What would have happened to this idea had it not been for the decentralized decision making?

It would be a lot more difficult for us to get anything done.

Would you have pursued it?

I would have tried. But it would have taken probably a few more years…It would have been a difficult process and there is more likelihood we would have been denied the opportunity.

Because with this pilot, we’re using internal funds. We’re not asking for additional funds to make it work. We’re using our textbook allocation. We’re using our technology allocation. We’re using some internal accounts and grants. We’re not asking the district for additional funds to make this work. With the budget the way it is, it wouldn’t be fair for us to do that.

Not all textbooks are available in an electronic version. What challenges have you encountered so far getting textbook publishers to work with you on this?

It’s a paradigm shift for everybody. And we’ve met with a few of the companies already. They are working on it for us. And the bottom line is, when you look at scope, that’s the piece we’re going to start with. You can’t start a pilot and put every single book on there – it would be almost impossible. So, we’re working on right now English and math first and then the other subjects. So, it’s going to be something where we’re going to start next year and phase it in as we go.

We also have some other resources out there. Like there’s the And they provide online textbooks for free. We’re looking at them. It’s out of California. It’s part of their education system so it’s tied to the California state standards. And we’re looking at that to see if it fits within our parameters and we can use some of those materials as well.

Books before 1923 are free. And people will say, well, what books will you use? Well, think about all the classics in our English Department that they can access now for free. We’re hoping that the St. Pete Times also comes on board. Currently, they deliver 500-plus newspapers to our front door every day for our students to read and gather information from. Instead of that, we can do it electronically and be able to put it on all of our kids Kindles daily. That’s exciting too.

A lot of times educators like to start small with a little pilot and then expand. From my understanding, you were committed this in the hands of every student from the beginning. Why did you feel that was important?

It is a pilot. And the scope piece again is the number of books we’re going to put on it. We looked at this two ways. One was putting it in fewer hands with more books or more hands with less books. And we realized that we really need to put it in all of our kids’ hands. In a high school with 2,200 kids, it’s impossible to choose a small group and make it equitable, because all of a sudden you have the haves and have-nots. A student in Algebra I, for example, could be a 9th-, 10th-, or 11th grader. So, would you have a 9th grader have it and a 10th and 11th not? And then how does the teacher work through those things. So, we realized right away that if we were going to do it, it needed to be in every students’ hands.

One of the questions we were bombarded with on was, ‘What will happen if these kids lose the e-readers?’

Ok. Currently, if a student loses a textbook, they have to pay for it. There is already a process in place for that. We’re actually going beyond what we do with textbooks and we’re coming up with an insurance policy. We’re working with a few companies and we’re in negotiations with that. So that if a student loses it, they can purchase a insurance policy for a minimal fee and that will cover the cost of the Kindle. Three textbooks at about $90 a piece is over the price of the Kindle.

Do you worry that they will be stolen or peddled or anything like that?

Well, that was one of the other reasons for going school-wide. Every kid is gong to have one but there wouldn’t be a desire to grab someone else’s. We’re going to be doing checks with them to ensure that they still have them. We’re not going to simply give them to them and say good luck. We’re going to periodically check to make sure they still have them. So, I don’t see that as an issue.

Educators are all about measuring outcomes. How will you measure the outcomes of using this in the classroom?

Several ways. One is that we’re going to be monitoring our FCAT scores. The other piece is the survey results we get every year and how those do. We’re going to follow our feedback from our kids and how successful they are and we’re going to watch their grades. Another piece of this is grades and attendance and being able to monitor that. Beyond the data piece, all the extras that we’re going to get definitely outweighs it. With the purchase of a textbook, you can’t look up a student’s grade. You can’t look up attendance at home. You can’t do additional research. So, beyond a textbook, it does so much more. So, when you look at the pros and cons piece, it outweighs it. But we are going to be monitoring grades and FCAT scores and their reading scores.

Is there anything else that you think we should be talking about?

It’s so exciting. When you think of it. That’s the way to go today. Kids think differently and we need to embrace that. We need to find ways to pull technology in the classroom and in their lives.

(Times file photo by Carrie Pratt)

Rebecca Catalanello, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 10:07am]


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