Wednesday, September 02, 2009

I'll Be Back: With Free Textbooks

All educational publishers know the holy trinity of textbook publishing: California, Florida and Texas. And winning or losing one out of three of these states in an adoption can tip the economic balance of any program. If California goes free not only will the economics for education publishing companies radically shift, but it is likely that Florida and Texas and many other states will follow California's lead in sourcing free educational content. Most immediately, California's migration toward the provision of free textbooks has been driven by the state's precarious financial situation, and there is an effective moratorium on new textbook purchases that is expected to last until 2014. While California's approach may seem drastic (or innovative, depending on your perspective), California is actually following a movement toward free textbooks that has been gaining steam over the past several years (GeorgiaTech). That said, California appears to be the first state to specifically identify free electronic texts that may be used in the classroom.

In May, Governor Schwarzenegger established a "Free Digital Textbook Initiative" to review free digital high school textbooks to determine which met the state's established academic standards. State education officials asked content developers to submit content and the California Learning Resource Network (CLRN) was asked to facilitate the review of the submitted content. The results were not to be considered an endorsement by the state (eventhough most of the free textbooks scored highly) however even as a 'dry-run' or experiment, this effort is likely to both encourage other suppliers of free content and local decision makers to consider adopting free content as part of their curriculum. Which is the intention.

In this first step, the initiative asked for textbooks in math and science and nine suppliers submitted 16 titles. The publishers were both individual educators and publishers and Pearson was the only 'traditional' publisher that chose to submit content. Embarrassingly, Pearson scored one of the lowest scores against the 'content standards met' criteria. (Why they were there at all is perhaps a more interesting discussion point.) The full report is located here.

In addition to the direction from the state level to evaluate digital content, other agencies have also joined in to support this initiative. Notable among these has been the California Educational Technology Professionals Association (CETPA) which recently organized a seminar showing participants how digital content could be integrated into the HS curriculum. The textbook content reviewed by CLRN will be available in classrooms in the fall.

The Governor's office made the following announcement:
Since these digital books are downloadable and may be projected on a screen, viewed on a computer, printed chapter by chapter, or bound for use in the classroom, schools can take advantage of these free, standards-aligned resources using existing hardware - even in classrooms without computers or laptops for every student.

To showcase the multiple ways in which digital textbooks can be used, the California Educational Technology Professionals Association (CETPA) today hosted 200 educators, technology professionals and content providers for a digital textbook symposium at the Orange County Department of Education. Teachers led students through lesson plans using digital textbooks in four mock classrooms, demonstrating the materials’ interactive potential. CETPA also moderated panel discussions about the future of digital education and potential next steps in this innovative effort.

Secretary of Education Glen Thomas spoke at the symposium and added, “I applaud the Governor for his leadership and vision in launching this groundbreaking initiative. This represents an important first step toward ubiquitous instruction that will help ensure all California students have access to the first-rate education they deserve.”
As this program develops, it will be interesting to see how the concept of a textbook begins to change. One of the criteria listed in the 'parameters' for review of the digital content is that the material must be 'stable for two years': Changes to the content are not allowed. For some subjects, this parameter should be no problem but, as the state evaluates social science and some other (dynamic) subjects, this parameter will begin to look quaint and limiting in what advantages digital content - free or paid - is able to deliver over print formats. In turn, as the parameters change, so will the process of vetting and approving titles for use in high schools. This initiative, viewed skeptically when it was announced earlier this year, has not only delivered tangible results to California educators but also represents a significant strategic issue for all traditional publishers as they navigate their digital frontier.


Tracy said...

The question that has yet to be answered is how all of this "free" content is to be paid for. The cost of producing quality textbooks is not just the printing, binding, and distribution of traditional hardbound books. All of the professionals involved in the creation of quality textbooks--writers, editors, designers, and others--deserve to be paid for their work. Indeed, they must be paid for their work, or they will have to move on to other ways of making a living.

NT said...

Tracy has hit the nail on the head. I appreciate the efforts of groups like CK-12 to come up w/ innovative, free educational materials, which in the case of CK-12 are supported by a nonprofit foundation. There is no doubt that an effort needs to be made to both reign in textbook costs and modernize the textbook format for the needs of today's students. But I'm not sure where this leaves the many educational publishing professionals who are already hurting as publishers continue to make cuts, as CA has basically said, "Give us what you gave us before, but this time for free."

My understanding is that publishers are still free to charge for supplementary content, but not the core materials, and I imagine Pearson submitted materials to keep their hat in the ring, but I wonder if they really have any idea where this will lead. And while CA has had some success on this trial, is this really scalable? Are there enough skilled people willing to produce high-quality content for free that a state like CA could afford to do away w/ paid textbooks by major publishers altogether? I seriously doubt it. I know some districts in Arizona are also experimenting w/ textbook-free education (, and I think they're doing amazing things and empowering teachers. But again, how many districts will this approach ever be feasible for? I suppose only time will tell.