Counting the costs of a digital classroom

Apple's new iBooks 2 app is demonstrated for the media on an iPad at an event in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. While e-book technology can streamline education, struggling school districts could fall behind the digital divide.

Kai Ryssdal: It's not the iPhone 5, it's not the iPad 3, but there was a big Apple product announcement today. A new version of its iBooks software geared at providing interactive student textbooks, which would be read -- of course -- on the iPad. The potential hurdles are many, including the fact that iPads still cost around $500.

We wanted to get away from the business case study, though, and explore what this might actually eventually mean in the classroom. So we called Katie Cohen. Until June of last year, she was a high school science teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Katie, thanks for being with us.

Katie Cohen: Thank you very much.

Ryssdal: So listen, in any ideal world, if all of your had had iPads, what would that have meant for you as a teacher?

Cohen: Well probably number one, that meant that all of them would come to class with their textbooks because I taught science and sometimes it was really hard for them to bring their text. I had so many excuses about how big they were, how heavy, etc. A better way to say that is that it would have been something cool for them. It would have been a new way to connect them to the classroom. A lot of my students were so technology savvy when it came to things like iPods. But when it came to academic technology, I felt like a lot of them were struggling in that area.

Ryssdal: OK. So let's get to the real world now, where in the Los Angeles school district -- as in many school districts around the country -- it's not like they can drop $500 for iPads for everybody.

Cohen: No, they can't. In the school that I taught at -- and in a lot of schools in LAUSD -- they're currently struggling to provide basics for their students like glue sticks, paper and pencils. So I don't really understand how they would have any more money for iPads or Kindles or e-textbooks.

Ryssdal: Yeah, but step back for me for a minute though. Because isn't there a digital divide question here because there will be districts in many cities and towns across this country where they can drop $500 for an iPad and e-textbooks. And yet a lot of kids in other parts won't have it. Then what happens?

Cohen: I already think that you already see that kind of division, where there's the "haves" and "have-nots." If you go in the direction of e-textbooks, of Kindles, of iPads,and you don't provide them at the public school level, you will just create this further divide where some people are more technologically savvy than others.

Ryssdal: You know, I said in the introduction that you're a former teacher. Many reasons obviously why people make career changes, is this one of them? Is this -- the struggles of education -- is that one of them?

Cohen: I really felt pushed and pulled out because I wanted to work in health care and now I can do that. I have the opportunity. I am in school for that. On the other hand, if I felt that I could have the freedom to teach in the way that I wanted to teach and be compensated in the way that was appropriate for my work and my education level, then there is the possibility that I would have stayed.

Ryssdal: Katie Cohen used to be a teacher at Grant High School here in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She's in graduate school now -- health care, as she said. Katie, thanks a lot.

Cohen: Thank you so much.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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