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California Going Digital with Math, Science Textbooks


California will offer "free, open-source" digital textbooks in math and science for high school students, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has announced. The governor says his state would be the first in the nation to take that step.

Maybe there is something to Rahm Emanuel's quip about not letting a good crisis go to waste. Schwarzenegger, in a statement about the plan, suggests that the idea for digitalizing textbooks has come about partly because of California's severe and well-documented budget problems. He says the move will cut costs and encourage collaboration among districts.


Schools have shown an increased interest in digital textbooks in recent years, and publishers have moved to meet that demand. (See Ed Week's exploration of the digital market here and here.) Products are changing all the time, through features such as Kindle. Even so, California's plan, which is being coordinated at the state level, sounds ambitious. The governor says he and his secretary of education, Glen Thomas, want to have a set of approved digital math and science textbooks ready for the fall of 2009, and that Thomas will be working with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell and State Board of Education Chairman Ted Mitchell on the venture. The state will compile a list of digital texts that are aligned to California's academic standards, according to the governor.

An effort to digitalize textbooks in another, less populous state would be interesting on its own. It seems likely that because this is occurring in California, a major textbook market, it could have broader implications for the publishing industry. California officials say that a list of approved digital textbooks will be put together after "content developers" from around the nation have submitted their products for review.

A couple questions come to mind: How ready are publishers who now seek state approval for their products in California to take the digital step? How much money would this save the state, or individual school districts? And if public officials see potential savings in choosing a digital product over a textbook, what impact will this have on the quality of math and science lessons across the state?

For techies and non-techies out there: How will California's move affect digital education, and more importantly, student learning in math and science?

UPDATE: I was curious about who would approve digital textbooks for use across the state. The Office of the Secretary of Education explained it to me this way: California adopts textbooks for grades K-8, but local school districts are responsible for adopting high school textbooks. Under the new digital initiative, the state will review digital material for high school math and science courses based on the state's academic content standards, and provide feedback in a written report, said Jessica Hsiang, of the secretary's office, in an e-mail. The responsibility for approving a product for use, however, will remain with local districts.

I'd also asked why the state chose to focus its digital efforts on science and math, rather than other subjects. Hsiang said the decision reflected the strong state and federal interest in "STEM" education, though she added that this is just a first step in a "much broader effort" to bring digital resources to schools, presumably across subjects.


Rapid changes is todays world make open source the only real way for students to have access to the most up to date information. California stepping up to this challenge would be a beacon for others to follow in digital education.

How will there be an effort for students to have access to the textbooks? There are no grants available to provide home computers for students and laptop programs in wealthier schools districts have not been effective. Computers and reading devices have a tendency to brake, get stolen, sold and cost a lot of money. It may be more cost effective to make digital copies available but keep the regular textbooks available too.

Having been recently laid off from a major textbook publisher, this kind of discussion intrigues me. The apparent poor sales of textbooks in California beg the question "How is the state going to put a Kindle or similar technology in the hands of each and every student?" The cost would be staggering. That said, peering into the future, how does an editor for the printed textbook market segue into such a new technology? Comments?

If these books are to be open source, it means that textbook publishers are not going to participate--there's no money in it for them. So who will create these open source books? It takes a huge effort to write a new book--there's no way this will happen for fall 2009.

It's an interesting idea, but there are many hurdles to overcome on both the development and delivery side of the equation.

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