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Schwarzenegger's push for digital textbooks

The California governor wants to save money by dumping printed schoolbooks for online, open-source texts. But is it feasible?

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 2009

San Francisco

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is taking a page from high school science books in an effort to shrink California's $24 billion budget gap.

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In fact, he wants to take the entire book – and do away with it.

By next fall, Governor Schwarzenegger intends to make free, open-source digital textbooks available for high school math and science classes throughout California, a move that he says will help reduce the more than $350 million the state spends annually on educational materials.

Some critics doubt the idea will result in any immediate cost savings – and question a plan that might require investment in technology and teacher training at a time when schools face deep budget cuts.

But if California embraces open-source materials, which are now increasingly used on college campuses, a nationwide debate over traditional textbooks is bound to follow.

In the era of the Internet, do students really need to lug around pounds of often-outdated print?

Neeru Khosla doesn't think so. Two years ago, she helped start CK-12, a Palo Alto, Calif., nonprofit group that aims to lower the cost of course materials by offering primary and secondary schools free Web-based content. Already, the organization has partnered with Virginia to provide physics texts.

Ms. Khosla says CK-12 will submit at least eight proposals to the California Digital Textbook initiative, which the governor announced last month and detailed in a press conference earlier this week. Submitted digital books still have to be approved by state education authorities before being made available to California schools.

Proponents of digital open-source texts tout the fact that when information changes, educators can make immediate adjustments. "Today, I was actually looking at my kids' textbook and Pluto was listed as one of the planets. You're not going to be able to change that until the next textbook comes out. But online you can change that information immediately," says Khosla.

By contrast, traditional print textbooks are usually approved by states on a six-year cycle.

"So just think about the last six years, all the things that happened," Schwarzenegger said Monday. "For instance, the Iraq war, the country's first African-American president … all of this you wouldn't have in those textbooks."

Plus, notes Khosla, online coursework can literally lighten students' load. "K-12 students are carrying half their weight in textbooks. Why?"