California offers free digital textbooks to schools

Ten digital math and science textbooks have made the grade for use by cash-strapped California public high schools under the state’s Free Digital Textbook Initiative.

The California Learning Resource Network evaluated 16 electronic texts submitted by nine publishers against the state’s standards for content;  10 of them earned the 90 percent compliance threshold for recommendation. Four of the books met 100 percent of the standards. The books were not evaluated for social context, and schools are being advised to review them before using them in the classroom.

The program is a big boost for the fledgling digital textbook movement, giving developers access to a market that spends $350 million a year on traditional textbooks.

“This significantly elevated our level of investment,” said Murugan Pal, co-founder and president of the CK-12 Foundation of Palo Alto, Calif., which submitted seven digital textbooks for evaluation. “For us, it is a big advantage.”

California is unusual in that it does not mandate textbook use in public high schools but only recommends it. Even under the initiative the foundation does not expect to see wide adoption of the digital texts during this school year, which starts next week.

“That does not leave much time to evaluate” the books, Pal said. “Most likely it will not be that much adoption this year.” But he expects to see 10 pilot programs with the CK-12 texts this year in charter and private schools that the foundation already has been working with, and hopes for broader adoption next year.

The California program is the broadest statewide digital textbook program in the country so far, although Virginia, which spends about $100 million on textbooks each year, earlier this year released a beta version of the first open-source online textbook, a collaborative effort by the state departments of Technology and Education and volunteer educators, engineers and scientists using Web-based tools. The book, titled “21st Century Physics FlexBook: A Compilation of Contemporary and Emerging Technologies,” was produced using the FlexBook platform developed by the CK-12 Foundation.

The Virginia Physics FlexBook is an effort to update educational material more quickly than can be done with traditional textbooks. The typical review and procurement cycle of states and school systems, coupled with the several years it can take for changes to make their way into published texts, means that conventionally published textbooks are expensive and time consuming to produce and students in even the best schools could be using material that is a decade or more out of date. Advances in knowledge far outpace the three-year production cycle for school texts, and a new edition of a printed text can cost $1 million for a publisher to produce.

FlexBook provides an environment for development and display of educational materials available for any teacher to use, share and adapt at no cost, using software and tools such as Java, Django, Ajax and the Google Web tool kit. The foundation developed its own value-added layer to display content.

The California initiative was announced in May as a response to the state’s budget crisis with a call to content developers to submit digital textbooks that conformed with state standards for geometry, algebra II, trigonometry, calculus, physics, chemistry, earth sciences, and biology and life sciences. The deadline for submissions was June 14. Results of the evaluation were released Aug. 10. The reviews and links to each textbook download are available online.

The state did not specify the format of the texts. The books are available online for download and reprint and the content is locked down for two years, although formatting changes are permitted.

Submitters ranged from publishers to individuals. Most submitted only one textbook and one developer submitted two. CK-12, with seven texts, dominated the submissions. Six of its texts met at least 90 percent of the content standards and three of them scored 100 percent.

The foundation’s digital textbooks were already under development and were being aligned with the content requirements of the states that dominate the U.S. textbook market: California, Texas, New York and Florida, Pal said. When the California initiative was announced, all efforts were put into meeting California content requirements in time for the submission deadline for the textbooks that already were completed.

Pal estimated that there is an 85 percent overlap in the requirements of these primary market states, so that meeting the requirements for any one state will put a textbook well on the way to meeting requirements of the others.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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