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Digital text books a great idea, but by this fall?

Submitted by on Tuesday, 2 June 2009 4 Comments

laptopGov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s push to put free digital textbooks in Californias high schools by this fall is so enticing on so many levels, the biggest of which is in the fewer number of trees that would be felled in the name of education if the dream is realized.

There’s the potential to greatly cut back on costs to school districts: An estimated $400 million a year and rising for kindergarten through high school textbooks, according to the California Open Source Text Book Project.

There’s the”gee whiz, isn’t technology grand” angle that definitely will appeal to teens glued to their cell phones, computers and gaming consoles.

There’s the potential for students to interact with their books by commenting on what they’re reading and analyzing the material. They’ll be able to share their thoughts with peers not only in their school but across the country and through out the world – a powerful concept indeed that was unimaginable even a decade ago.

Ay, but the devil is in the details. And a lot of details are troubling if you want to kick off this program in three months’ time.

If textbooks are going to be digital, obviously students need to be able to access them digitally. First that requires a device – a minimally powerful netbook or perhaps even Kindle – that’s going to run at least a couple hundred dollars per student.

That’s not a bad price considering that the average high school textbook costs $70. Districts easily could come out ahead on the equipment purchase by not buying three books a year. Rolling out the plan in only math and science classes, though, would put schools in the hole initially.

The reading device is not a one-time expenditure either. Old students graduate, new non-wired ones come in who will need computers.

Want to rely on private foundations to contribute the device? That hasn’t worked so well with $100 One Laptop Per Child program, which has had some successes but also has been hampered by corporate insistence on certain operating systems and hardware components.

After officials solve the equipment problem, there has to be a way for students to access the textbooks online. Only about 56 percent of the state’s households have broadband services. For some, that’s a choice – broadband actually covers 96 percent of the state.

For others, it’s not – 1.4 million Californians, mainly in rural areas, have no access to broadband services unless they want to opt for a pricey satellite system that’s still slower than DSL..

So that, again, shifts a moral responsibility to districts: Seeing that high school students can actually access the materials they’re supposed to learn. Through grade eight, it’s the state’s obligation.

For newer high schools, that’s not an impossible goal though not every room in even the newest of buildings is wired to the extent it would need to be to pull this off. For older high schools, it might not be possible.

See the costs rapidly mounting on this program? And that’s assuming California could find open source textbooks that meet the state’s standards.

Yes, digital textbooks can and should happen. In a day when kindergarteners are toting Nintendo DS consoles, this generation will have no trouble adapting. But aiming to do it this fall is pie-in-the-sky optimism.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Leslie K. said:

    omg we have no money!!!! remember???? our state has no money!!! HELLO??? GOV? ARE YOU LISTENING?????

    I give UP.

  • Debra said:

    The whole thing kind of reminds me of my plan to “save” money by making snow cones instead of giving in to the siren’s call of the ice cream truck. Yes, in the long-run, I’ll save. But not until after I recoup the initial investment in equipment. It’s the same deal with the textbooks.

  • Sandra Foyt said:

    Nothing ever happens quickly in education.

    My take on the press release is that there will be a list of approved digital textbooks that can be used to develop curriculum in the Fall. Actually using that list will take a lot longer.

    A few cutting-edge schools, and teachers, may be ready to use these materials in the Fall, most will spend at least a year talking about it. And low-budget schools, especially those whose students are in those areas without broadband access, will lag far behind in digital textbook usage.

    We’ll see if my prediction holds!

  • Debra said:

    I’d bet on it, Sandra. And the “approved list” will have served the purpose of the state being able to say, “Sure, we cut your budget, but we gave you this money-saving option. Why aren’t you using it?”