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This article was published 1/9/2014 (1115 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Textbooks used to be synonymous with learning, but for today's students they are as foreign as a one-room schoolhouse.
With iPads, Smart Boards and online blogs and videos, the familiar frayed hardcover book, complete with scribbles in the margins, is all but forgotten.
Remember the 1990s when parents cringed at the double-digit kilograms of books their kids lugged home in a straining backpack? Today, middle years and high school students are more likely to ask, "What's a textbook?"
So just how far has the once mighty — and heavy — textbook fallen? The answer is not in the table of contents, but the bottom line of school divisions trying to find ways to make dollars go as far as possible.
The Pembina Trails School Division will spend $212,544 on new textbooks this school year — barely 47 per cent of what it spent just five years ago, superintendent Ted Fransen said.
Math, chemistry, physics and biology are still the go-to textbook subjects for high school students. However, dictionaries, atlases and history books have long fallen out of favour. Their information is often instantly outdated and there are many other forms of resource material.
Case in point: When Fransen taught American history in the 1990s, his textbook was published when Rev. Martin Luther King was still alive.
"Certainly, our technology budget has mushroomed," he said. "We spend way more money on technology than our decline in spending on textbooks."
Today's textbook is not necessarily the hardcover of yesterday, said Peggy Hobson, principal of Henry G. Izatt Middle School in Whyte Ridge. They can be purchased in a printed form, or on a disc, or as an online access code where it ends up on a Smart Board.
Hobson's school saved $20,000 the first year it went paperless and put the money into technology, which previously might have been spent on textbooks.
At Izatt, 80 per cent of the students have some form of electronic device, and that's how they prefer to learn, she said.
But it's not just a simple matter of some new form of 'open the textbook to page 36, read, memorize, close the book, repeat five periods a day.' The students now not only consume information, but more importantly, they produce it, Hobson said.
Iain Riffel, assistant superintendent of programs at Pembina Trails, said the textbook trend has been noticeable.
"Overall, the decrease in (textbook) spending has been amazing," he said.
Riffel said it's becoming more common for teachers to post assignments online so students and parents can check from home. And that really tricky math or chemistry lesson whose complexity may evade students the first, second, or third time around, what edu-jargon calls "curriculum pinch points," teachers will make a video explaining it step-by-step so students can review it until they get it, said Riffel.
A specific class, he said, need no longer purchase sets of a novel for all students. Instead, it could have just six copies of six novels, all sharing a theme, and students choose which to read.
One company even allows teachers to choose among short stories and put together a book they print out themselves.
Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson said teachers feel some pressure to use textbooks — "because it reassures parents" — but outdated books are a problem.
On the other hand, online material varies widely, so a teacher's judgment is important, he said.
But whatever replaces textbooks, Hobson cautioned, it's key to remember they are tools and the teacher has to have a plan to engage students.
Added Fransen: "Technology is not the leader, the teacher is still the leader, as they were 100 years ago."
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For first-year university students, the sticker shock when they walk into a campus book store hasn't gone away.
University of Winnipeg Students Association president Rorie McLeod Arnould said science undergrads can easily spend $1,000 and up on textbooks, the equivalent of another 25 per cent in tuition. To help students out, UWSA runs a used-book service.
Meanwhile, the U of W bookstore began renting textbooks to students five years ago to help lessen the burden. Store manager Charmaine Trainer said U of W students saved $330,000 last year by renting at half the cost of buying.
Students are even allowed to write in their rentals.
"Students can definitely write in their rental books: They can highlight, make notes and use the book as if it were their own," Trainer said. "Once they are done with the book, we check them in as a used book in which they are resold or re-rented to the next batch of students. All we ask is that it be reusable for the next student with no water damage or torn covers."
She said the number of textbooks has changed little over the decades, but there are more digital titles, which also means savings for students.
Sharon Pearce, the textbook department manager at the University of Manitoba bookstore, said today's publishers spend far more money on research and development and technology of online resources to accompany textbooks.
"We see instructors incorporating online testing and homework assignments into their courses," Pearce said. "Students are required to purchase an access code that allows them the ability to use these resources. In some cases, an ebook is included so the purchase of the hardcover text is not necessary."
Read more by Nick Martin.