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California's textbook future

The governor's idea to provide online textbooks is a good one; now we need a better way to accomplish that.

May 23, 2009

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has the right idea about providing online textbooks to California students instead of the heavy and highly expensive books that have been a staple of education. But his proposal -- to have textbook companies provide free content in exchange for proceeds from purchases of other classroom supplies -- is financially clunky and digitally outmoded. What's needed is a new model for collecting and disseminating information to students, and that's going to require a loosening of the state's labyrinthine regulations for textbook approval.

Digital textbooks make all kinds of sense for 21st century education. They should reduce costs significantly, even if schools end up providing laptops to students who can't afford them. Print textbooks already cost the state $400 million a year, a sum that would plummet once the price of paper and full-color printing is taken out of the equation. The books have become a literal burden for students, who lug them to and from home each day now that many schools have eliminated lockers. Online schoolwork polishes skills needed for modern academia and jobs.

The problem is that the state appears to be using its digital push as a way to finance the purchase of more classroom materials and supplies. As explained to The Times by Secretary of Education Glen Thomas, publishing companies are being asked to provide their digital texts at no cost, thus freeing up money for the state to buy related supplies, such as laboratory equipment. The textbook companies could make money through deals to reap a portion of the income from those sales as well as on increased sales of workbooks and instructional guides.

No wonder publishers are balking. The proposal asks them to gamble their financial stability on iffy future sales. At the same time, it fails to take advantage of new educational vistas afforded by online text.

There already is a tremendous amount of free, high-quality information on the Web provided by government, universities and other reliable sources. Even better, it can be updated and customized easily and cheaply. What's needed is a structure to review, collate and edit the best material for classroom use.

This has been tried, most notably by the California Open Source Textbook Project, which formed in 2002 to provide digital history textbooks for use in public schools. Its biggest hurdle has been the tortuously complicated network of state regulations for textbooks, many of them having nothing to do with the value of the information, but rather with such issues as whether the books make references to unhealthy foods. The governor and Legislature must work on loosening these unhelpful restrictions to reap the best benefits of online education.

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