Open courseware gains momentum

Open-source courseware could change the way students learn.
Open courseware could change the way students learn, proponents say.

For years, tech-savvy educators and product developers have pushed for more open educational resources in classrooms as a way not only to engage students through technology, but also to save money in a time of tighter budgets. But does using open courseware really make a difference in spending?

Texas State Representative Scott Hochberg thinks so. He sponsored a bill that provides for the adoption and use of open-source textbooks in the state, beginning Sept. 1, 2010, by creating a digital repository of textbook content that will be managed by the Texas Education Association. This move, he says, will save the state at least $250 million a year.

“We were due to spend about $225 million to replace the grades six through 12 literature books in the state. We can buy the content for under $20 million,” he said. “Someplace between $20 million and $225 million, there’s a cost savings.”

Hochberg said using open textbooks is not only cheaper, but also more efficient and faster when it comes time to purchase new editions.

“In the long haul, it means for us that once we buy Shakespeare we don’t have to do it again when the binding wears out. It also means that if we get into a math curriculum and figure out that kids are failing at acute angles, we can patch that curriculum instantly without waiting for the next purchase of textbooks,” he said.

Hochberg explained that the state is in charge of supplying books to local school districts, so while the districts might not see the cash savings in using digital textbooks, they will see an increase in materials or equipment they will be able to buy.

“It gives us an opportunity to get more for our money while saving money as well,” Hochberg said.

He said Texas teachers already are using digital textbooks, though as of now there’s no way for the state to know the rate at which the digital texts are being used.

“Whenever we talk about this at a meeting of teachers or at a meeting of superintendents, or just anecdotally talking to parents in the area, the number of times I hear, ‘We get the books but we don’t open those, all the stuff we use is on computer,’ is a pretty constant drumbeat,” Hochberg said.

Last July, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) published a paper, “A Kindle in Every Backpack: A proposal for eTextbooks in American Schools,” which proposed that the government supply each student in the country with an electronic reading device, allowing textbooks to be cheaply distributed and updated. The move also would allow teachers to use an interactive curriculum that engages digital-age learners, the paper argued.

“This proposal is just a concept, an idea to be refined and improved with more dialogue and input,” said the proposal’s author, Thomas Z. Freedman, a senior fellow at the DLC who served as a member of the 2008 Obama-Biden Transition Project on the Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform Policy Working Group.

Although a rapid-scale plan initially would cost $9 billion more than providing traditional textbooks during the first four years of implementation, wrote Freedman, school districts nationwide would save about $700 million in the fifth year and $500 million annually thereafter. (See “Experts split on ‘Kindle in Every Backpack.’“)

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