Digital Textbooks Join the Discourse

Earlier this month, Governor Schwarzenegger announced a list of proposed budget cuts to deal with a $24B budget deficit. Among the proposals is a plan to save money through the use of free digital textbooks in the state’s public schools.

A June 8 fact sheet from the Office of the Governor states, “The average textbook costs about $75 to $100 per student. For a school district with about 10,000 high school students, the use of free digital textbooks in just science and math classes could save up to $2M.”

The Governor proposes a two-phase initiative that begins with high school students using digital textbooks in science and math classes this fall. The second phase would open up use of the digital textbooks to all grades.

Digital textbooks have, since Governor Schwarzenegger’s announcement, received more attention, not only as a solution to budget cuts in education, but also as part of President Obama’s commitment to 21st-century education. We spoke with Neeru Kholsa, co-founder and executive director of the CK-12 Foundation, about free digital textbooks’ entrance into the educational discourse, and how students and teachers can use the technology.

CK-12 is a non-profit foundation committed to providing free textbooks to states. “We’re committed to doing whatever we can to move our students into a competitive environment. I want to make that change — help our coming generations. We can’t leave the system as it is,” Kholsa explains.

The push for digital textbooks is not solely the result of the recession. “I think the tough economic times just basically pushed it over the edge, but I think it’s not just the economic times,” Kholsa says. “Things change, evolve. Even in education, we have to evolve to what’s next.” At some point, Kholsa adds, the switch to digital textbooks would happen. “It was a destiny, if you want.” Budget shortfalls have just more recently sent districts looking to digital textbooks as a cost-saving measure.

While facts in textbooks may remain the same, such as two plus two, Einstein’s theories, and Shakespeare’s plays, how it is presented to students does change. “What changes with each generation is the context. When my parents grew up, they learned much differently than I did.” Students now often receive informal education at home, but for those that do not, there is a gap to be bridged with technology that can adapt to students’ varied learning and social environment.

Textbooks originally took care of material a teacher would have to produce by himself or herself. But when textbooks are replaced around every six years or so due to growing costs, teachers cannot update material to reflect recent changes (e.g. Pluto is no longer considered the ninth planet in our solar system) or change their textbooks to reflect the learning challenges a particular group of students may face. Textbooks are not always usable for every student.

Kholsa explains that one of the first questions to answer when considering digital textbooks is student access. Not every student has access to computers once they leave their classroom, but digital textbooks can be printed out for each student. “It is a lot lower cost than buying the textbook.”

As mentioned earlier, not every textbook is going to be usable by every student in a classroom. Not every student in a classroom will be able to learn the same way or understand material presented in the exact same fashion. A digital textbook will allow for teachers to customize information in a context with which students can relate. Interactive material, hyperlinks, and the ability to make notations will help students, teachers, and parents all take an active part in the learning process.

Districts creating digital textbooks can follow common standards while also having the freedom to teach and choose their own content. The technical support CK-12 offers allows states to create something that stays in the system. That base textbook can then be customized by teachers to help students meet state standards.

Kholsa notes, “You can start with K-12 kids and take them from where they are, instead of where you want them to be, and then to where they need to be.” Digital textbooks create ways for teachers to find relatable concepts and different presentation of material.

Digital textbooks also help the education sector adapt to technology. Adults take their Blackberry and their laptop and go to work, Kholsa points out. “My son had two huge backpacks — one weighing more than him!”

One reason Kholsa promotes free textbooks is to address the rising costs of textbooks. Spending $100 per textbook is not always an option for some parents or school districts. Free digital textbooks take away costs that shouldn’t be there, even when accounting for printing the material out for each student.

“We need to think about — if your are committed to education students, we need to make sure we provide them the content that they can scaffold their learning on. They need something in their hands. It shouldn’t cost $100.”

In the end, digital textbooks help create a more context-based learning experience for students. Teachers can tailor material to fit different learning styles, while also helping students learn in a 21st-century atmosphere that uses technology to its fullest. Of course, digital textbooks aren’t the final solution to making students competitive in a global economy.

“We’re in line with one component of it. We’re not the answer,” Kholsa explains. “Nobody is the answer to any one problem. Nothing singly by itself is going to create that change. It’s going to be all these small things together to make that change.”

Kholsa hopes CK-12’s commitment to free textbooks will help other states recognize the significant change California is making with its proposal, and join California in offering student access to a 21st-century education.