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Answer to Heavy Backpacks: E-books

Some educators say the real solution is Internet assignments or CD-ROMs. But the cost may preclude their widespread use for now.

October 20, 2002|Martha Irvine | Associated Press Writer

Something's missing at Sun Valley Charter High School in Ramona, Calif. There are no textbooks, only computers.

That means students there don't have to lug heavy backpacks -- a familiar ritual for many young Americans who carry books from class to class and home at day's end.

Growing back-pain complaints prompted a California law limiting textbook weight. But some say assignments from the Internet, "e-books" or CD-ROMs will be the real solution.

"It's not the wave of the future; it's the wave of the present," said David Tarr, executive director -- instead of principal -- at Sun Valley High, a public school near San Diego.

Officials there used money normally spent on textbooks for computers. The new school's first students -- about 60 incoming freshmen -- get assignments from such services as Cuestia.com, an online library, and Interactive Mathematics, curriculum on computer CD.

It sounds nice, but unrealistic to Monika Rohall, 15, of Chicago. "What about kids who don't have fast-running computers at home?" she asked.

A freshman at Chicago's Lane Tech High School, she's stuck navigating four flights of stairs with all her books because she has no time to get to her locker between classes. Back pain from her overloaded pack has caused her to quit the volleyball team.

Such health problems are increasingly common, says Grace Walker, a registered physical therapist in Orange, Calif.

Each year, she and other practitioners say they seemore young people with backpack-related pain. In severe cases, it can lead to curvature of the spine.

Some students have found solutions.

Megan Brychcy, a high school senior in Perry, Ga., says a different kind of book bag -- one with a single padded strap intended for one shoulder -- helped her.

Walker's 12-year-old son uses a rolling backpack, dragged on wheels behind him. His mom also buys extra textbooks to keep at home.

That's not an issue at Sun Valley High. Sometimes, students print out assignments to take home. And if homework requires a computer, they use the school machines after class.

Still, in some lower-income districts, textbooks -- let alone computers -- are already scarce.

Students in some Chicago elementary schools, for example, aren't allowed to take textbooks home for fear they'll get lost or stolen. Students often copy assignments out of textbooks.

Such funding shortages make CD-ROMs and desktop computers seem unattainable.

"Clearly, electronic delivery will make this problem go away. But I think we're a number of years away from that," said Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Assn. of American Publishers' school division, a trade group for textbook publishers.

Still others believe that with wider use, high-tech devices will be cheaper than costly-to-print textbooks.

That's why last spring, Richard Bellaver asked his graduate students at Ball State University to test e-books, hand-held devices that present electronic text and pictures. He says the average scores of students who studied only with e-books and those who used traditional textbooks were virtually the same.

Now he wants to try other high-tech options to see what works best for students -- "and, hopefully, save them some money," said Bellaver, associate director of the university's Center for Information and Communication Sciences.

Whatever technology becomes dominant, Mark Gross -- CEO and founder of New York-based Data Conversion Laboratory Inc. -- says schools will eventually save money.

"This will be a boon for poor educational districts," said Gross, whose company has converted everything from bulky law books to the Defense Department's weapons systems guides into electronic text.

Until then, New Jersey is considering imposing a maximum textbook weight. California Gov. Gray Davis signed a similar measure this month.

Textbook publishers, meanwhile, suggest restoring lockers that have been removed at many schools and giving students time between classes to get to them.

Driesler said more students should wear backpacks properly -- on both shoulders not one.

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