Digital Textbooks, Real Gains for Education

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post, June 16, 2009

fortune cookie that says "open textbooks are in your future"

Governor Schwarzenegger has a plan to make California the first state in the nation to provide its schools with free digital textbooks. The initiative would start this fall with online materials for high school math and science classes. The Governor explained his thinking in an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury:

[quote]California is home to software giants, bioscience research pioneers and first-class university systems known around the world. But our students still learn from instructional materials in formats made possible by Gutenberg’s printing press.
It’s nonsensical — and expensive — to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form. Especially now, when our school districts are strapped for cash and our state budget deficit is forcing further cuts to classrooms, we must do everything we can to untie educators’ hands and free up dollars so that schools can do more with fewer resources.[/quote]

The Governor is right that this effort could easily turn out to have a significant long-term impact on public education.

For one thing — and much like a similar effort now underway in the state’s community colleges — it could save Californians money as well as leverage the investment already paid for with tax-payer dollars. The K-12 school system now spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year on traditional textbooks, even though free or lower-cost alternatives could be easily developed and distributed online. Additionally, most teachers in California already have access to computers, so it is not as if brand new technology is needed. And, it’s not as if most of our students aren’t already tech savvy.

School districts, educators, and individual authors across the country have put a wealth of resources on the Web (including lesson plans, teaching guides, and primary source materials in history, literature, math, science, and other subject areas). Many of these resources are well-designed and offer more dynamic and current material than conventional textbooks that students currently have access to.

Perhaps even more important is the potential impact on student learning when teachers become more actively engaged in the sharing and reuse of curriculum materials. What’s truly innovative about the Governor’s plan, and what could make it a national model to support effective use of educational technology, is its support for “open-source” textbooks–i.e., online resources that have alternative copyright licensing, meaning that teachers can freely share and adapt to meet their local needs.

For example, say that a history teacher is looking for material that would supplement the textbook on the American Revolution. In an open-source world, it’s easy for the teacher to go online, find additional materials or text, and modify what they are using. Or if a unit on photosynthesis turns out to be too simple for this year’s biology class. Why not just add a few extra pages of more advanced material? Additionally, imagine that the teacher can now offer that to other teachers, so that the wheel will not need to be reinvented the next time by yet another teacher.

No doubt, some teachers will stick to the textbook as is–for example, the novice teacher might be more likely to appreciate the page-by-page structure that a static textbook provides. However, many others will revel in the opportunity to share favorite materials online, update old ones, try out new ones, and talk with colleagues about what works, what doesn’t, and why.

That’s the sort of conversation that should occur among professionals in any field, and it’s the kind of collegial exchange and professional discretion that has been missing in schools for some time.

In the case of technology, it’s true that we need to be realistic. It does cost money to support the necessary technology infrastructure for an effort like this. But now is an opportunity to leverage what we have already spent, both in terms of technology as well as in what teachers already bring to the table. Classroom instruction is difficult and sometimes unpredictable work, and teachers cannot and should not be taken out of the equation. Rather than always trying to “teacher proof” the classroom, that is, telling educators which course content to focus on when, we can improve teaching and learning by allowing teachers to have access to high-quality materials and tools and the professional leeway to exercise their pedagogical judgment.

If the Governor’s initiative delivers on its promise to provide teachers with open-source digital textbooks, that’s not to say that all will be smooth sailing from then on. For the past years, I’ve been involved with providing free-to-use education resources at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education. We’ve experienced some of the growing pains. We know that, inevitably, some schools will be challenged to strengthen the materials of their teachers that might be poorly designed, or that need to be aligned to curriculum standards as they evolve over time. This continuous improvement is, in fact, the beauty of open source education.

It’s not as if open-source textbooks will do away with oversight, though. Administrators and school boards will still provide input, direction, and–when necessary–veto power over instructional decision that does not meet their quality criteria, for example. And in any case, that’s a small price to pay for the chance to build a more independent and intellectually rewarding culture of collaboration and sharing in California’s schools.

Given the tremendous potential to leverage costs already spent and the efforts of teachers in curriculum development, what free digital textbooks can offer the state over time is huge. And, given the flexibility they provide teachers and students, this one’s a no-brainer. The Governor’s initiative deserves to be watched closely and supported without hesitation if we are really serious about not giving up on innovation in education.

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