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California makes free online textbooks available

Ten high school math and science texts are announced. But critics say the materials fall short of standards and the real costs of using them -- in infrastructure and training -- weren't considered.

August 12, 2009|Seema Mehta

Calling online textbooks a boon to student achievement and school district coffers, state Education Secretary Glen Thomas announced Tuesday that 10 free digital high school math and science texts are available for use in California classrooms.

But the likelihood of students tapping into them is virtually nonexistent, primarily because of school districts' textbook approval policies and teacher-training needs, educators said.

Still, Thomas said the move marks the first step toward revolutionizing education in the state.

"This is a groundbreaking initiative," he told more than 100 representatives of schools, technology companies and others gathered at the Orange County Department of Education. "We think that technology is one of the ways to reform and improve education."

Others said that none of the online texts met all state content standards and that the governor's office had failed to consider the real costs -- in infrastructure and training -- that will accompany their use.

"You should be using technology when it's better than what you have now, not just because it's new technology," said Maureen DiMarco, secretary of education under Gov. Pete Wilson and a retired Houghton Mifflin Co. executive.

Earlier this year, Schwarzenegger launched an effort to make free digital textbooks available statewide and invited publishers to submit sample high school math and science texts.

Of the 20 submitted, four were withdrawn by publishers. Ten of the remaining 16 met 90% or more of the state's academic standards, and four of those met all of the standards, according to Thomas, Schwarzenegger's top educator advisor.

But an accompanying report on the online texts released Tuesday shows that the texts appear to meet far fewer of the standards than officials suggested.

For example, the CK-12 Foundation's calculus text is cited as meeting all 32 calculus standards. But the report highlights six standards areas that are not fully met.

"Any plain reading of the report would indicate grave doubts about how thoroughly these materials meet all of the standards," DiMarco said. "I would hate for a well-intentioned effort on the part of the governor to be misinterpreted as a manipulation."

Thomas disagreed. "These digital textbooks were reviewed by trained content specialists who determined that they meet state standards. Period. Anything beyond that is just semantics."

Educators said they looked forward to online content playing a greater role in the classroom but were worried about paying for it.

Multibillion-dollar state cutbacks have led to growing class sizes and widespread teacher layoffs. Many districts across California, including Los Angeles Unified, have put textbook purchasing on hold to save money, and are using the funds to meet other needs.

Although access to the textbooks is free, educators fear they will require infrastructure -- more computers and school-wide wireless Internet access, among other things.

"I think it's good we're talking about it," said Richard M. Rodriguez, director of information systems for the Vista Unified School District in Oceanside. "At the end of the day . . . who pays for that?"

Camille Anderson, a spokeswoman for the governor, said districts will not have to spend any additional money. "Schools can take advantage of these free standards-aligned resources using existing hardware," she said. "Downloaded texts can be projected on a screen, or printed chapter by chapter."

Educators also expressed concern that students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds have equal access to the material. Districts are required by law to make sure instructional materials are available to students in class and at home.

Thomas said all students would be able to use the texts -- in varying forms. Students without computers or Internet access at home could view them in public libraries, or teachers could print chapters or the entire book, which would cost a fraction of the price of a new textbook.

But educators said the issue may require legislative clarification.

"It's very easy to say, 'Sure, no problem,' " said Bob Wells, executive director of the Assn. of California School Administrators. "What we really need is some leadership from the governor on the implications of these issues."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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