Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gov. Schwarzenegger calls for open-source digital textbooks in CA; I hope he means e-books

In the midst of a severe budget crisis in California, Governor Schwarzenegger has called for the use of open-source digital textbooks for California schools.

I think this is a great idea and another innovation where California should lead the way, in addition to being a cost saving measure (and potentially an ecologically friendly one). But I was confused when NPR interviewed Sheila Jordan, Alameda County Superintendent of Education, on this topic. Superintendent Jordan spent much of the interview expressing concern about how a lot of students don’t have reliable access to computers and the Internet, and how teachers certainly don’t have the resources to print copies of textbooks in class for such students.

Now, I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Jordan’s concerns, but when I think of “digital textbooks” I don’t think of people reading off a Web browser at home, or taking home pieces of paper printed off a Web browser at school. I think of downloading content onto an ebook reader—no paper waste, easier to read than a screen, can take it with you, etc. Granted, most students don’t have those either, but they are less expensive than computers (especially if purchased in bulk or otherwise subsidized, e.g. by textbook publishers), don’t require Internet connectivity (the Kindle relies on the 3G data network for downloads, or files can be sideloaded via USB), and are ecologically friendly.

I know that current ebook readers are targeted at people buying books online, but I’ve downloaded plenty of public domain content onto my Kindle–academic papers, public domain and no-license-feebooks from various sources (textbooks and otherwise), and more. Devices like the large-screen Kindle DX and the iRex iLiad Book Edition are no-brainers for textbooks, at least where black & white is sufficient, and Amazon’s even announced pilot programs where they are seeding colleges with Kindle DX’s.

So one of us—either myself or Supt. Jordan—may have misunderstood what the Gov meant by “digital textbooks”. I hope my interpretation of his words is correct.

More worrisome is the politics of state-level textbook review in California and the sham process that seems to make the review system fundamentally broken (well, at least we don’t have stickers warning students about evolution on biology books!). This may be why the Gov proposed e-textbooks for math and science first, which are least susceptible to these issues, though I agree with Supt. Jordan that because of the way those books are used (students flip pages back and forth as they study) they might not be the best candidates for early adoption. At any rate, one may hope that the profileration of open source textbooks may change the dynamics of the state textbook review situation—authors of open-source aren’t producing them for profit and so are less likely to feel constrained by such guidelines, and the quality of the free books may be just too good to pass up.

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