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California considers open digital textbooks

In what could be a first-of-its-kind statewide initiative, California education leaders are working together to compile a list of free, open digital textbooks that meet state-approved standards and will be available to high school math and science classes this fall.

At the request of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Secretary of Education Glen Thomas will work with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and State Board of Education President Ted Mitchell to develop the list of standards-aligned, open educational resources. The advisory report is scheduled to be released by Aug. 10.

Currently, there is no statewide review of ninth- through 12th-grade instructional materials in California, said Tom Adams, director of the curriculum frameworks and instructional resources division of the California Department of Education. There is, however, a textbook adoption process in place for kindergarten through eighth grade.

"[High schools] can use [open] textbooks anyway right now, but the question is whether they’re going to invest any time and energy in them. So we’re determining if the materials are aligned to California state standards," he said.

Jessica Hsiang, spokeswoman for the secretary of education, said the initiative aims to bring state and school leaders together in a unified call to developers of digital textbook technology.

"There’s an obvious movement [toward] integrating technology in education. This initiative is exciting, because we’re bringing the top three people in California education to work together toward providing the state with digital materials," she said.

The initiative comes as California faces a $21.3 billion deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and state officials are looking for solutions that can cut costs without sacrificing educational programs. On May 19, California voters shot down five of six ballot measures that would have put the state at a deficit of $15.4 billion.

Schwarzenegger and lawmakers will have to reach a new budget agreement quickly, with tax revenue coming in far below projections. Unless a compromise is struck by the end of June, the state could have trouble paying its bills by the end of July.

Political observers say state officials will have little choice but to go after even politically sacred programs, such as schools.

Last week, the governor said he will consider shortening the school year by seven days, laying off up to 5,000 state employees, and taking money from local governments, which likely would translate into cuts to police and firefighting services. Tens of thousands of teachers also face the prospect of layoffs.

"As California’s budget crisis continues, we must find such innovative ways to save money and improve services," Schwarzenegger said in a press release. "California was built on innovation, and I’m proud of our state’s continued leadership in developing education technology. This first-in-the-nation initiative will reduce education costs, help encourage collaboration among school districts, and help ensure every California student has access to a world-class education."

Officials say it’s too soon to speculate how much money using open digital textbooks could save, because use of the books will not be required.

"The local high school district has the responsibility for adopting a textbook," Hsiang said. "After the advisory report is released, the local school districts will retain the responsibility for providing textbooks. But they’ll have the ability to look at that report and decide how and if they want to adopt those books."

Even if teachers begin to use the open digital resources, Adams said there is no way of knowing if the digital books will replace current textbooks.

The digital textbooks will be "another resource at their disposal. There are some students who do not respond to certain materials and may respond better to these materials," he said.

California is asking content developers to submit digital material for review.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


California Department of Education

Office of California Secretary of Education

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