Montgomery may pilot digital textbook program

A key chain USB storage device plugged into the home computer would substitute for lugging home books.

By: Jill Matthews
   MONTGOMERY — Forget the need for shoulder-sagging backpacks. Say goodbye to heavy textbooks. Embrace the digital age.
   That is what a select group of students from Montgomery Middle School will be doing if the Board of Education approves the Book Locker Pilot Project recommended by Superintendent Stuart Schnur.
   The board is scheduled to vote on the project at tonight’s meeting, which will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Montgomery High School Media Center.
   The pilot program tests the functionality of an alternative use to physical textbooks, which can weigh anywhere from 2 to 7 pounds, by using tiny Universal Serial Bus storage devices, also known as key chain storage devices. A USB storage device, which is generally the size of a pack of gum and can be attached to a key chain, is a portable alternative computer drive that can store up to 20 textbooks’ worth of information.
   Rather than carrying textbooks home, students could bring their lightweight, handheld, individual USB device home to access their textbooks on computers. Students plug the USB device into their USB ports on the back of the computer and are instantly connected to all of the information stored on the device. Currently, all computer operating systems support USB devices, according to USB Implementers Forum Inc., a nonprofit group made up of the companies that created the USB.
   "It’s a nice complement to the way students live their lives today," said Dean Kline, spokesman for Dell Inc., the company that will be performing the pilot program. Mr. Kline said students today are computer savvy and this new program will fit nicely into how they conduct their work.
   Montgomery would be one of a handful of schools and universities in the world piloting the program if the board approves it. Montgomery was chosen because it is a cutting-edge, technologically advanced school district whose superintendent serves on multiple technology committees and is forward-thinking, according to Mr. Kline.
   "What we are striving to do down the road is create a paperless, textless classroom," said Dr. Schnur.
   The pilot program, which would begin sometime in March and last until the end of the school year, would involve approximately 110 to 140 volunteer seventh-grade students and cost the board up to $25,000. The program will require purchasing two new servers and USB keys for all participating students, all at cost.
   "There is a lot of value built into the program and so we are doing what we can do to make it affordable to the school district and they see the value of it," said Mr. Kline.
   Although the program aims to become a substitute for heavy textbooks, students participating will still have access to standard textbooks, Dr. Schnur said.
   Dell has negotiated with publishing houses to give the rights to use approximately 50 percent of the textbooks needed for the pilot program. Most of these are history, mathematics and science books used by the school, Dr. Schnur said.
   Regular hardcover textbooks take approximately three years from the date they are written to reach students’ hands. By the time students receive the textbooks, some of the information is no longer valid or has to be updated. The USB devices would eliminate the time delay because of the ability of book publishers to make quick changes to the textbook, send it to the server and let the students upload the updated information, Dr. Schnur said.
   Some board members questioned the fairness of a program like this and the possibility of it driving a wedge between those who can afford to have home computers and those who cannot.
   Dr. Schnur said he recognized these concerns but cited a survey that found 98 percent of Montgomery students have at least one computer in their homes. He also said that the school would work toward an agreement with Dell to loan computers for the program to those students who do not have home computers.
   The Dell spokesman was not able to confirm that Dell had made such an agreement but did mention that students without computers can purchase Book TVs to use with the USB devices. Book TVs, which he estimated to cost around $100 each, are devices that plug into a television set and can pull up the information stored on the USB storage device. Students using the Book TV can access the same information that students using computers can access.
   Middle School PTA Vice President Debbie Loupos said Montgomery is a district that tries innovative ideas but also noted that some parents without home computers raised concerns over the disadvantage their children might experience. She said that during a presentation to parents Dr. Schnur promised to help those students without home computers in some way.
   Ms. Loupos also mentioned that she was interested in the fact that the program could help alleviate potential back problems caused by lugging heavy backpacks. Other parents concerned that the USB program could cause eye problems or cause headaches were told that the devices could be used with a television, which often haa a bigger screens than computers, to help minimize these potential problems.
   According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, visual problems such as eyestrain and irritation are among the most frequently reported complaint for computer users, but there is no valid scientific evidence suggesting that video display terminals are harmful to eyes.