Computers help students struggling with heavy books

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Something's missing at the new 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 new California law limiting textbook weight. But some say assignments drawn from the Internet, "e-books" or CD-ROMs will be the real solution.

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, an online library, and Interactive Mathematics, a curriculum on computer CD.

It sounds nice but unrealistic to Monika Rohall, a 15-year-old Chicagoan. "What about kids who don't have fast-running computers at home?" she asks.

Back pain complaints

A freshman at Chicago's towering 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're seeing more 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.

"Fortunately, I can afford to do that," Walker says. "Most people can't."

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

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

Elementary students in some Chicago public schools 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.

E-books, not textbooks

"Clearly, electronic delivery will make this problem go away. But I think we're a number of years away from that," says Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers' school division, a trade organization 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.

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

Whatever technology becomes dominant, schools will eventually save money, said Mark Gross, CEO and founder of Data Conversion Laboratory Inc.

"This will be a boon for poor educational districts," says Gross, whose New York-based 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 last week.

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

Driesler also says more students should wear backpacks properly -- on both shoulders instead of one -- even if that method has, as he puts it, a "dweeb factor."

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