On August 11, California officially launched its Free Digital Textbook initiative. The half day event held at the Orange County Office of Education featured two panels of stakeholders, of which I was fortunate enough to be a part.
In his opening remarks, CA State Secretary of Education Glen Thomas spoke on behalf of Governor Schwarzenegger (who had planned to attend but was called out of town with the death of his mother-in-law). My sense as a participant on the panel was this — there were a lot of positive aspects, as well as many things that I wish were different.
In the positive column was the fact that the event happened at all. As I have noted previously, California deserves credit for moving from print to digital, from a six year adoption cycle to a two year cycle, and from expensive to free.
Also worth noting was the presence of Pearson, the only for-profit publisher that so far shown true interest in moving from a traditional text book model into the future.
Another positive: the friendly, always collegiate rivalry between the three nonprofit players – Curriki, CK12 and Connexions. While we are not for-profits trying to win customers, we are all young and idealistic organizations trying to gain users in what has become a competitive landscape. My sense is that this rivalry can only be good for the K-12 education community. Like any competition, it forces each of us to focus, to innovate, to stay relevant, and to remain connected to the problems we are trying to solve. It also begs the question of how all of us can become collaborators as opposed to competitors.
It was also wonderful to see the lab that was set up that showcased students across elementary, middle and high school all working with technology. In speaking with several participants, it’s clear that their comfort with technology is not the gatekeeper for curricular material moving online.
As for things I wish were different — let’s start with the name – and more broadly what the name represents. Calling the effort the California Free Digital Textbook Initiative suggests that the solution on the table is simply a digitized representation of the same old same old. I’d suggest that they might have better called the program the CA Standards-Aligned Digital Content Initiative.
The next big issue is the format of these free digital texts – locked PDFs. While state officials are quick to chime in that this is just phase 1, for the next two years these books must be locked in their submitted form. As I’ve written before, Curriki is opening up our books on our site and has launched an open call to California Earth Science and Chemistry teachers to work with us in an open environment to collaboratively improve our books by editing and supplementing with their classroom-tested materials.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t call attention to the elephant in the room – the lack of clear strategy to drive implementation of all these free resources. It’s great to stimulate for-profit, nonprofit and academic publishers to share free content, but that’s not the end of a vision for a digital curriculum future, it’s the beginning. How will teachers be trained? What sorts of collaborative networks will be created for teachers to share their experience with all the new free digital content? Since there aren’t enough computers in the classroom for every student, are teachers planning to print out these textbooks? In a state where the budget crisis is forcing class size to balloon to as high as 42 students per class, it’s a safe bet that extra money wasn’t put aside to address these printing costs.
Despite the shortcomings, as the largest state in the union, this was a very important first step. Curriki was honored to be invited to the panel and we’re eager to continue to participate as the program continues to evolve.