In the state that gave the world Facebook, Google, and the iPod, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says forcing California’s students to rely on printed textbooks is so yesterday.

The governor recently launched an initiative to see if the state’s 6 million public school students could use more online learning materials, including open courseware–perhaps saving millions of dollars a year in textbook purchases. (See “California considers open textbooks.”) Now, other states will be watching to see how the initiative fares.

“California is home to software giants, bioscience research pioneers, and first-class university systems known around the world. But our students still learn from instructional materials in formats made possible by Gutenberg’s printing press,” Schwarzenegger wrote in a recent op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News. (See “Schwarzenegger: Digital textbooks can save money, improve learning.”)

In a state with a projected $24 billion budget deficit, Schwarzenegger has asked education officials to review a wealth of sources that already are on the internet, many of which are free, and determine whether they meet California’s curriculum standards.

The governor is starting with math and sciences and has asked providers to submit their online postings to state officials by next week. The materials that survive state review will be made available to school districts by Aug. 10.

Last week, Schwarzenegger promoted his initiative to lawmakers as the first step toward a learning revolution.

“We expect the first science and math books to be digital by this fall,” Schwarzenegger said. “If we expand this to more textbooks, schools could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and that’s hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used to hire more teachers and to reduce class sizes.”

Kathy Christie, chief of staff at the Education Commission of the States, said Schwarzenegger’s plan appears to be the most ambitious of its kind in the nation, although Illinois is also studying digital textbooks.

“It is unusual, certainly, for a state to be looking at it statewide,” she said.

But Schwarzenegger’s plan probably will not produce the budget bonanza he envisions–at least not anytime soon.

The online material would supplement textbooks that teachers already use, meaning California will continue buying traditional books.

Also, California’s K-12 standards for core subjects are among the most rigorous and complex in the nation, meaning that much of the material online might not measure up. Textbook publishers that provide most classroom content will not give their work away for free, so it’s unclear how much savings the state ultimately could realize.

Most publishers already offer online content, including study materials, teachers’ guides, and digital versions of books that accompany hardcover texts.

“Many of them are just as happy to produce the material in digital form. But the schools lack the hardware to access the digital materials,” said Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division at the Association of American Publishers.