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Digital Divide


In California, teachers may not be bound to use printed textbooks much longer. By the fall of 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to provide free, open-source digital textbooks for California high school math and science classes, according to ABC News.

Schwarzenegger says the measure will save the state $350 million. Critics, however, doubt that digital textbooks would in fact save money, saying that they would require investing in new technology and teacher training.

Either way, the initiative has reignited debate about the use of digital textbooks.

Open-source digital textbooks offer more updated information in a timely manner, says Neeru Khosla, of CK-12, a nonprofit in California that offers free Web-based content for primary and secondary schools. In contrast, states approve print textbooks on a six-year cycle.

"Today, I was actually looking at my kids' textbook and Pluto was listed as one of the planets. You're not going to be able to change that until the next textbook comes out. But online you can change that information immediately," says Khosla.

But while critics acknowledge that digital textbooks would literally lighten students’ book bags, they say that schools are not ready yet ready for them because not all students have access.

"Where are you going to get a computer for everybody? How many of these kids actually have computers at home?" says David Sanchez of the California Teachers Association.

Questions also persist as to the quality of open-source texts in comparison with the more expensive, copyrighted textbooks produced by traditional publishing companies.


Availability of computers in schools is a rapidly diminishing problem. Teaching from outdated or incorrect text books on the other hand has long term consequences.

I think the textbook issue is much larger than printed/online. I'm not sure there's all that much evidence for the availability problem of computers in school "rapidly" diminishing, but what about the problem of access at home? Would it be fair if some students had computers and others didn't?

Textbooks tend to limit curriculum (I taught English and often had to hunt up materials that I wanted to use because the editors of our books elected to include something else), and they also drive thinking in a certain direction, sometimes what seems to be politically correct at the moment. Would electronic textbooks be flexible enough to deal with this? Would each teacher be able to decide on content? What would this really look like ... just another book on the screen?

John, what are some of the long term consequences you are speaking of? The mislabeling of Pluto as a planet hardly seems worth worrying about ....

I recently met a high school teacher from Virginia who told me his school system placed laptops with grades 9-12 in lieu of books/book fees and indicated they actually saved money in the process. It eliminated the need for computer labs as well as outdated books. Sorry I don't have anything to reference -- at the time I thought it made so much sense but didn't take down info about specifics.

I think one of the important benefits of electronic textbooks is that they can be delivered on so many different mobile devices with interactive capabilities: eBook readers, iPods, smart phones, etc. We need to think beyond computers in classrooms. An iPod that students could load at school without having to pay for hardware/connectivity at home, might suffice. This would narrow the digital divide and make it more manageable. Purchasing an iPod still might be a burden for some families but schools have worked in the past to help them overcome these obstacles. While this sort of delivery may not speak to me personally as a senior citizen or a non-auditory learner, it certainly does to school age children and teenagers!

I believe that we are poised on the edge of a sea change. Textbooks are currently ginormous collections of everything required in every state (or at least California and Texas). Lately I have noticed texts coming home with the name of our state--this means that the state content standards for the grade level are listed in the front with the page number of related material.

Next step--in a digital world, would be to eliminate all of the things that are only there because CA or TX require them, and provide truly state-centric versions. But that is really just a beginning. Principles of Universal Design already suggest that digitized text can include many many kinds of accommodation (read aloud, read aloud on words when clicked, hyperlink to definitions when words are clicked, read aloud with underlined words, or lines, word suggestion for any text input, etc), just for regular text. It goes on from there. Reading levels can be personalized on the same content. You-tube like videos can provide oral explanations, or demonstrations ready when the learner is. Pacing can be accelerated.

But we have to let go of some things. Thing one--learning relies on books. Thing two--a text is something that you carry home to read at night.

Change is difficult for many and I have found that my students parents prefer hard copy textbooks. However, I agree with Tim that textbooks are only a tool for teaching standards and there are many others out there. I prefer methods that encourage imagination, higher level thinking, and enable a child to think for themselves other than simply repeat what he read in a book. They seem to remember more when it is something that they can actually see or put their hands on.

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