Open source, digital textbooks coming to California schools
The cash-strapped Golden State has decided that, starting next school year, schools will be able to use open source, digital textbooks for a number of math and science subjects. Ars talked with Brian Bridges, the Director of the California Learning Resources Network, which will be reviewing the texts, to find out more about what the program entails.
On Monday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger promoted his state's recently announced initiative, which would see it adopt free, digital textbooks in time for the next school year. The state's current fiscal crisis is an obvious motivating factor, as Schwarzenegger said that the state's share of textbook spending comes in at $350 million a year. But the crisis may simply be accelerating a process that was already under way. For the past several years, the state has run a program designed to evaluate online educational resources and certify that they can be used in a way that is compliant with state educational standards.
In a speech and editorial in which he pushed the program, Schwarzenegger didn't shy from making financial arguments. He suggested that the shift would help both the state and local school districts, which spend their own money for textbook purchases. Once the program is in full swing, a school district with 10,000 high school students could end up with savings in the area of $2 million a year. For now, however, the certification of digital texts will focus on various areas of math and science: Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Earth Sciences.
Getting digital material on a tight schedule
Digital publishers are already able to submit their work for approval to California Learning Resource Network, which will handle the evaluation process. We talked to CLRN's director, Brian Bridges, who described the evaluation process and discussed where he thinks the initiative might lead.
Although the digital text initiative is all new, CLRN is anything but. Bridges noted that it has existed for a decade in its current form. "Our specific purpose is to review electronic learning resources, which includes videos, software resources, as well as data assessment tools, which is student data analysis software, and free Web information links," Bridges said. These materials were meant to be used as supplemental course material, Bridges explained—under state regulations, supplemental works aren't allowed meet all the teaching standards for a given topic, which is the standard by which textbooks are evaluated.
"For example, algebra I has 31 content standards; if a program came to us that met all 31 standards, we couldn't touch it," Bridges said. "We would have to tell the publisher that only the State Board of Education could touch it. But if it had 30 standards—and most of them do—then we definitely do review it." The great majority of these come from commercial publishers, so the gap between textbooks and the material CLRN is already working with is smaller than it might appear.
What is new for the CLRN is the focus on open source material. But that isn't necessarily going to force a major change in the material, either. Bridges says they're already working with 10 publishers, and expect that they'll have 14-16 signed on by the time that evaluations of the material are made. "We're pretty excited about what we're seeing," he said. "We actually have one commercial publisher who is submitting several of their textbooks [as open sourced material] for review, so this will be pretty groundbreaking, and I think it will be a paradigm shift for the publishers as well. They're taking a paid resource they used to charge the districts for, and basically allowing the districts to download it for free."
The material will be subjected to an expedited review to have it ready for teachers to prepare for the upcoming school year. The relevant CLRN divisions will be pulling in their reviewers for meetings in late June and early July, and performing reviews that the state is terming a "quick vetting." Two educators will be taking a look at each standard and annotating any instances where the material is lacking, but the evaluation won't consider some of the social criteria normally used for texts, such as the depiction of women and minorities.
Changing the rules of the classroom
In announcing the decision, Governor Schwarzenegger also emphasized its pedagogical value. Printed textbooks, he noted, are on a six-year approval cycle, meaning that many recent historic and scientific events get left out of the classrooms. "I'm actually quite pleased that the Governor actually mentioned that in his speech yesterday," Bridges said. "We adopted science textbooks in 2006 that still say Pluto is a planet. In electronic format, you can update things constantly."
Of course, that adds to the complexity of the vetting process. "The State Board of Education has a valid concern that, once we go through all this work to approve this content, we don't want a publisher to come through and make a change that isn't aligned with our standards. There has to be a short, easy review of changes. Once the State Board accepts that process, then textbooks will truly be changed."
Bridges said he couldn't be more pleased that the Governor and a State Board of Education that he described as "very protective" when it comes to letting material into the classroom, are not only supporting this initiative, but planning further steps down the road.
Still, the process isn't necessarily going to change everything overnight. "High schools will still have the choice of whether or not they want to choose a specific book—just because we're approving something, doesn't mean they have to buy it or download it," he noted. There's also going to be a learning experience when it comes to media; Bridges wondered, "How are we going to transport that. Is it a Kindle? Is it some other kind of e-reader? Is it a one-to-one laptop program? Or are we just going to print these out? Because it's still very inexpensive to take the most relevant chapters and have them printed out."
Bridges clearly feels that a paradigm shift is underway, regardless of whether educators and publishers embrace it or not. At one point he said, "right now, we're pretty much where we were at 10 years ago with cameras and film," and, given the prevalence of digital photography, the implications were clear. Still, the change had to start somewhere, and California is a very significant market for educational materials; its embrace of these changes, even if driven by a financial crisis, may mark a significant turning point.