School District’s Foray into E-Books Inefficient, Ill-Advised

Authors: SCPC and Kevin Dietrich

With the money Greenwood School District 52 spent on more than two dozen E-book reading devices this summer, it could have bought thousands of paperback texts, enough to supply classics to a decade or more of high-achieving English students.

Greenwood 52 paid out more than $9,000 for 25 Kindle 2s, even though the devices will only be used by a small number of students and won’t save the district money.

The Kindles, which currently sell for $299 apiece on but were purchased for $359 over the summer, are being used by Advanced Placement English students at Ninety Six High School in Greenwood County. The district also purchased cases, which currently retail for between $24.99 and $44.99 each.

The Kindles are being used in the AP English class for books assigned as outside reading — such as James Joyce’s Dubliners — many of which had previously been purchased by the students themselves, according to Rhonda McDowell, Greenwood 52’s assistant superintendent for instruction.

Our idea was not the money savings, it was to put the new technology into the hands of AP students before these students get into college, to give them an idea of some of the technology that’s out there, she said.

Unfortunately, like many South Carolina school districts, Greenwood 52 doesn’t appear to be flush with cash.

Earlier this year, Greenwood 52 Superintendent Dan Powell said that due to the projected state budget shortfall his district would have to look at programs and positions and may not be filling positions that are vacated by either resignations or retirement. Class sizes will probably be larger.

However, the money spent on the Kindles could only be used in the Advanced Placement program, Ninety Six High Principal Rex Ward said.

Greenwood 52 is the same district that last year responded to a Policy Council Freedom of Information Act request for public records on employee travel, catered meals and training services by demanding $217,192.09 in fees before making the data available.

The district justified the amount, the most asked for by any of the state’s 85 school districts, by claiming 40 hours of staff time plus paper copy expenses. After accounting for 10,000 copies at 25 cents per page, labor amounts to $5,367 per hour. That equals an annual salary of more than $10.7 million.

Greenwood 52’s hopes that buying Kindles for AP English students will prepare them for college may prove ill-founded.

At least one university is reporting disappointing results after handing out Kindles to students. Less than two weeks after 50 Princeton University students received free Kindle DX e-readers, a newer version than what Ninety Six High students are using, many said they were dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the devices.

I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool, Princeton student Aaron Horvath told the Daily Princetonian. It’s clunky, slow and a real pain to operate.

Horvath added that using the Kindle has required completely changing the way he completes his coursework.

Much of my learning comes from a physical interaction with the text: bookmarks, highlights, page-tearing, sticky notes and other marks representing the importance of certain passages — not to mention margin notes, where most of my paper ideas come from and interaction with the material occurs, he said. All these things have been lost, and if not lost they’re too slow to keep up with my thinking, and the features’ have been rendered useless.

In addition, a study released last month Forrester Research showed that E-book producers will have to cut their prices significantly to encourage mass-market adoption.

Forrester analysts noted that potential buyers are reluctant to spend $300 or more on an e-reader that is primarily designed for reading books and magazines.

“The bottom line: E-reader product strategists will have to educate consumers and innovate to bring prices down,” according to the Forrester report.

Kindle does have some benefits, though. Electronic versions of texts can cost less than the books themselves, and for every one text purchased, buyers receive six electronic copies. Also, once a text has been added it is available until it is deleted, so classes reading the same books can use them over and over again.

The devices themselves, however, are much more costly to replace than books. Dubliners, for example, can be bought new for $3.99 apiece on and as little as $1.71 or less a copy on For the current price of a single Kindle, Greenwood 52 could have purchased 175 new copies of Dubliners — enough for more than half a decade of AP English students at Ninety Six High.

McDowell said she hopes the new Kindles last at least three years.

McDowell said she got the money for the Kindles from instruction funds she had withheld from the district’s general fund. But under the state’s archaic categorical funding restrictions, money dedicated to one program (e.g., AP classes) cannot generally be shifted to another.

The bottom line is this: Greenwood 52 officials jumped at a chance to try something trendy, despite the fact that only a small percentage of their students will ever use the technology.

On top of that, Kindles are superfluous, far more costly than the books they’re intended to replace and aren’t likely to encourage students to embrace E-books in the future.

Nothing in the foregoing should be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder passage of any legislation. Copyright 2009. South Carolina Policy Council Education Foundation, 1323 Pendleton Street, Columbia, South Carolina 29201.

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