California schools see distant digital future for textbooks

Teachers and textbook techies, take note. The state is reviewing digital versions of textbooks that could be used in high school math and science classes next year.

It’s the first step in a transition from the 5-pound texts loaded into schoolkids’ backpacks to computer-based books and learning materials, and California is the first state to try it.

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addressed the Legislature on Tuesday, he said going digital could save schools hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

School administrators realize this could be the future of instruction, but they say it won’t save them money anytime soon.

And for school districts like River Delta Unified along the Sacramento River, the transition will be challenging. Many of the district’s 2,500 students live in homes without computer access. And the district gets its Internet through cables that can clog up with too much information traffic.

“For the state to give us a disk, it would be like giving us a gallon of gas and no car to put it in,” said River Delta’s Chief Educational Services Officer Robert Hubbel.

And districts like River Delta can’t afford to buy that hypothetical car.

Last school year, the state allocated $419 million for instructional materials.

“That’s hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used to hire more teachers and to reduce class sizes,” Schwarzenegger told the Legislature.

Maybe one day, county Superintendent of Schools Dave Gordon said.

In Sacramento County, schools spend $2 million per subject for new books and replace them every seven years, he said. The law requires schools to provide students with learning materials both at school and at home.

Before districts can scrap textbooks completely, they will have to ensure that each student has computers at home and in the classroom. Teachers will need training, and there will have to be technical support for when things go wrong.

“It would take a lot of time and effort to convert from a paper-based environment to an environment where every kid had Internet and laptops,” Gordon said.

Carl Fahle, program manager of instruction and technology in the San Juan Unified School District, said schools might be able to print chapters of digital books or buy iPods or Kindles for students to access them.

“Those devices are coming down in price enough that they are affordable,” Fahle said.

Secretary of Education spokeswoman Jennifer Hsiang said schools spend roughly $100 on textbooks for each high school student per year.

The governor’s digital education project began last month to identify digital textbooks that are free and downloadable. Nonprofts and other free providers have until June 15 to submit materials to the California Learning Resources Network, which will determine if they’re in line with state curriculum. The plan is to have links to high school science and math textbooks online by Aug. 10.

If all goes well, they’ll expand into other subjects, director Brian Bridges said.

The longevity of the program depends on the people who provide instructional materials continuing to do so for free, said Tom Adams, the state Department of Education’s director of curriculum frameworks and instructional resources.

“There are costs in development, and we’ll see whether they continue to get donators to support them,” he said.

Bridges said nobody has asked the schools how they’ll use the digital option yet.

“It’ll be interesting to see how this comes out,” Bridges said.

Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers school division, said publishing companies aren’t very threatened by the prospect of free digital textbooks.

Established educational publishing companies provide more than just textbooks, he said. “It’s an entire program that comes with teacher editions, online support materials, extensive planning and pacing charts.”

Elk Grove Unified School District’s textbook clerk Laura Hall said she already has seen student and teacher reactions to electronic books.

Newer textbooks come with CDs or online versions, and Hall said those aren’t nearly as popular. Teachers are slow to try them, and parents complain and demand hard textbooks just because they aren’t used to them, she said.

“I tell them even if they can’t flip pages, it’s still a textbook,” she said. “They want nothing of it.”

Training for teachers who didn’t learn in the digital age and for parents skeptical of the technology would have to be part of the process, Fahle said.

“The prospects are obviously very exciting, but the devil’s going to be in the details,” Fahle said.