There’s a fair amount of buzz about how California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is leading a state-wide initiative to put open content in classrooms by providing students with free digital open source textbooks for high school math and science.
I’ve read through the California Open Source Textbook Project (COSTP) website and have learned that open source digital textbooks are intended to supplement printed textbooks (not replace them, cough cough) and that sometime down the road, the open source textbooks could provide a revenue stream because the state could license the textbooks to educational organizations outside the state.
According to COSTP, the benefits of open source textbooks are:
1) The complete elimination of the current $400M+ line item for California’s K-12 textbooks
2) A significant increase in the range of content afforded to California’s K-12 textbooks
3) A permanent end to California’s textbook shortages
4) Creation of fully portable content holdings database that scales with classroom technologies as they are introduced.
The COSTP website says that they have begun a pilot program — in cooperation with Wikipedia — for a World History textbook for 9th graders. The book will be tied to California State Curriculum Standards.
This is brilliant — the state of California is tired of paying out money to textbook publishers, tired of quibbling over whether or not publisher textbooks meet state standards, so the state of California has decided to publish the books they need themselves!
When it comes to cutting something out of the budget, textbooks are low-hanging fruit. They are expensive and they need to be replaced fairly often. It’d be much cheaper to appoint a state “Board of Textbooks” and pay teachers and administrators already in the educational system to build the books digitally. (They should pick another name though; I just realized it sounds a lot like “bored of textbooks.”)
The idea of having a closed community use a wiki or some other type of collaborative software to create a textbook isn’t even new. What’s new is the idea that a state-level Department of Education is trying this out!
It makes perfect sense. The state has the resources to gather the right people from around the state together (in person or virtually) and pay them for their contributions. The state has the resources to be able to publish and distribute the textbooks digitally and if need be, in printed form. The state has the clout to set standards for the content and for the formatting (maybe this will end the format wars) AND the state has powerful motivation to make an initiative like this happen. Money.
But as Ryan Paul points out, there are a lot of ways State Ed could mess this up.
I think the first way is by not taking the time to educate taxpayers about how the books are being built. If people start thinking that an open source textbook means that every teacher — or heaven forbid — every student — has the power to edit his or her textbooks, they’ll be a lot of push back. But if the state stops and takes time over the next three months to teach the public about how the books will be built and everyone knows which parts can be edited or annotated and which parts can’t, what’s not to love about the idea?
P.S. I keep wondering if we should call this type of textbook build “open source.” Maybe going back to David Wiley’s idea of “open content” might be a better fit. Or maybe we should just drop the “open” altogether and replace it with collaborative or just plain old “digital.” That way the focus is taken off how the books are built.