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Moving slowly into a new age

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Standing in the way of this train is probably pointless, but the nation's school systems ought to go a little slower when it comes to replacing textbooks with computers.

A public school outside of Tucson, Ariz., made news recently by deciding to issue laptop computers to all 340 of its students, which will completely replace books. Teachers use the digital formats of textbooks, plus free web sites and other subscription services to form the core curriculum of reading. Then they assign other web sites as needed. Students turn in their homework through the Internet, where software automatically checks it all to make sure no one plagiarized. The school filters its Internet connection to make sure Johnny isn't spending the reading hour looking at lewd photos.

The upsides to all of this are as flashy as the sales pitch for a new car. Rather than handing down dog-eared copies of old textbooks from one class to the next, e-textbooks are always updated and fresh. That fact alone holds tremendous promise for students in Third World countries, for example, where some similar programs are underway. In addition, texts can include links to primary-source material, or to the video or audio of an important historical event or speech. And lugging around a laptop is a lot easier than lugging a backpack filled with heavy tomes.

But here in the affluent United States, the all-electronic movement has a bit of a trendy ring to it. Proponents often talk about how today's young people relate better to computers than to books. But, as any parent can attest, they also tend to spend an inordinate amount of time playing games and sending meaningless text messages to their friends.

America shouldn't give up on the value of old-fashioned books yet, nor should they discount the value of teaching kids of the joy that comes through curling up with a page-turner. The best strategy would seem to be a combination of the two.

A lot of textbook publishers these days provide CDs along with their books, which contain digitized, easily searchable versions. Teachers can assign students to supplement their own studies by searching for primary source materials on the Internet, and homework still could be turned in electronically.

The day may come when all of the world's books are available digitally, but that day still remains far off. Libraries still contain things you can't find online, which even the school in Arizona acknowledges. And even if the day comes when all knowledge is on the Internet, the value of an old-fashioned book should be handed down from one generation to the next.

That may sound odd to a young generation that finds sitting in front of a computer screen as natural as eating cookies, but not all old-fashioned wisdom should be tossed aside as meaningless.