E-textbooks: Is it time to go digital?

Digital textbooks can save money, argues California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a San Jose Mercury News op-ed.

Today, our kids get their information from the Internet, downloaded onto their iPods, and in Twitter feeds to their cell phones. A world of up-to-date information fits easily into their pockets and onto their computer screens. So why are California’s public school students still forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks?

. . . It’s nonsensical — and expensive — to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form.

But the transition won’t be easy warns the Christian Science Monitor.

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.

CK-12, a Palo Alto nonprofit group, plans to offer free Web-based content to schools and is eager to submit e-books to California.

Teachers will need training to use a new kind of book. And there will be technology costs:  Not all students have computers at home.

About Joanne


  1. Not all students have computers in school either. It’s probably a good idea if we can fix that, though.

  2. Well let’s see, a big part of the reason textbooks cost as much as they do, beyond the fact that the selling price has little to do with whether the textbook’s selected for use, is that they’ve been so vitiated of educational content by the requirements of politically-driven demands that the publishers lard on, by way of compensation, heavy paper, gloss finish, lots of graphics and any other elements of printing frou-frou that comes to mind.

    So since the cost of textbooks isn’t related to their educational value it’s a cinch that the textbook publishers will simply move their act to the new little screen without cutting their prices much, if at all, and without adding much in the way of educational value.

    It’s really kind of wondrous the way the source of the problem, the political nature of public education, is carefully and completely ignored.

  3. Ragnarok says:

    “Not all students have computers in school either. It’s probably a good idea if we can fix that, though.”

    Not sure I agree.

    Most of the parents I talk to feel that computers are a serious distraction. In addition, reading a real book is somehow very different from reading something on the computer – I much prefer to read a real book.

    Allen’s right, I think. The textbooks are usually absolute rubbish. Consider that you can get Singapore Math for almost nothing, and they’re much better than the trash that schools use.

  4. GoogleMaster says:

    How (or why) is it that we can expect them to have computers and cell phones, but oh lordy no, we can’t expect them to be fed at home? Or will our tax dollars be expected to provide them with free computers and web-enabled cell phones, too?

  5. allen is right — I don’t see the publishers giving up their cash cows any time soon. Free. That’s so naive it hurts.

    Lit text books are generally horrible. I just use novels — or some very old Scot Forsman texts that they’ll pry out of my cold, dead fingers even when they’ve turned to dust. Few pictures, no “enrichment” or “extensions” and “mini-lessons” — just a great selection with very well designed questions.

  6. Robert Wright says:

    Allen, very well said.

    Two of the best textbooks I’ve ever seen were not products of the school system.

    The H.R. Block textbook for new employees is absolutely excellent. Also, the Radio Shack manual on how to pass the Amateur Radio license test is outstanding. Both of these books were designed to get results and they were not written by committee. And both were spiral bound and printed on plain paper.

    Page 91 of the Holt textbook I’m supposed to use for my 7th grade literature classes has a photograph of a happy black woman in a wheelchair talking on a cell phone to an effeminate Asian male. Why? One of the California State Standards is to understand instruction manuals. So, if I follow the textbook, I’ll be teaching my students how to operate a kind of obsolete cell phone that none of them have. But at least it will reinforce the idea that if you are female, disabled and black, that you can be happy, that you can own a cell phone, and enjoy talking with gay Asian friends.

    I use the internet a great deal with my 7th graders. I’d say that more than 3/4’s go to the classroom website, RoomC6.com, to reread the supplemental materials I throw at them. (Guess why I use supplmental materials?)

    But at school, I don’t allow any computers in my classroom and I discourage my students from using the ones in the library.

    Once the administration started regulating the use of technology, it hasn’t been worth using it.

    My students learn more from YouTube than they do from their textbooks.

  7. “Most of the parents I talk to feel that computers are a serious distraction.”

    Really? Well, those parents aren’t in the classroom. I teach 4th grade, and each of my students have a laptop, provided by a grant my district received. Most of our textbooks are already completely online, with additional digital components. The kids don’t really need hard copies of their science, social studies, or math texts. The computers have completely changed my classroom, allowing students to research and learn in ways that I couldn’t have imagined back when I was a student.

    Computers are an incredible learning tool for my students, just as they are to me at home. If they’re a distraction in the classroom, it’s because the teacher isn’t directing use of the resource properly OR because administration has placed such ridiculous filters and restrictions on them that the kids can’t access valuable information. BOOKS can be more of a distraction in my classroom than computers–students are constantly reading DIARY OF A WIMPY KID under their desks during lessons. Should we not use books, either?

    Check this video: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4232212558646621307

  8. That should have been “each of my students HAS a laptop.”

  9. Ragnarok,

    I also prefer to read real books, and for the most part I’m not defending physical textbooks either. I assess them as they come in and regard most of them as unsuitable, to say the least. If Singapore math (and I don’t have any idea what it is) is as good as you say, fine. Let’s use it.

    I think it’s a mistake, though, to deprive kids of technology. You don’t have to rely on it in lieu of, say, novels that could be taught–or good texts, and there are good texts. I don’t see why it has to be either or.

  10. How innovative of the Guvonator…I imagine he’ll be directing them NCBI for science? I hope he relaizes that ALL of those “free” textbooks are also outdated – that is why they are “free”. And while we’re at it – nothing like ripping off the textbook authors. Everything has consequences.

  11. Ragnarok says:

    NYC Educator,

    It’s too easy to use technology as a crutch, and that’s why I’m sceptical about its use in the classroom. I’m sure there are many cases in which it’s used well, but most of what I’ve seen and heard indicates that it isn’t used well.

    When my son entered 6th-grade, his (private) school provided every student with a shiny new laptop. The kids were ecstatic, but in a few months the teachers realized that they were spending all their time surfing the net, etc., and they finally gave up on it.

    When you’re teaching from a book, you have a lot more control and discipline.

    Nonetheless, if you can use it effectively, go ahead and use it.


    “Really? Well, those parents aren’t in the classroom. I teach 4th grade, and each of my students have a laptop, provided by a grant my district received. … The computers have completely changed my classroom, allowing students to research and learn in ways that I couldn’t have imagined back when I was a student.

    With respect, if education in the U.S. were in good shape, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Therefore you cannot justify the use of computers by pointing to their use in the classroom.

    You may know to use computers effectively, but that says nothing about the general case – and that’s what counts.

  12. I agree it’s often used as a crutch, and I’ve no doubt it’s used by the same teachers who show videos all the time. But technology is just a tool, and how good or bad it is depends on how you use it.

    I have control and discipline in my classroom whatever I do–that’s priority number one. With teachers who don’t, believe me, books won’t help them at all. But nothing positive can happen without order, whether you have books, computers, or whatever.

    The thing about technology–for me at least–is that I’ve never, ever had access to it. So I don’t actually have the opportunity to find out whether or not it would work for me.

  13. Cheryl wrote:

    The computers have completely changed my classroom, allowing students to research and learn in ways that I couldn’t have imagined back when I was a student.


    Could you be a bit more specific? For instance, do the kids cover the year’s worth of material in half the allotted time? A quarter the allotted time? Do they ace the standards tests at a significantly higher rate then their non-computer using cohorts?

    The reason I ask is that I noticed a while back another dog that didn’t bark.

    The proponents of the use of computers in education paint a glorious future of generalities – deeper understanding, greater attainment, preparation for the twenty-second century, etc. – but none of those generalities are particularly amenable to reduction to specifics. So I figure that if you’re using computers in your classroom and you place such a high value on those computers you can fill in a couple of the blanks that other proponents of computers leave unfilled.

  14. Anne Marie says:

    I understand the concern that the computers may become a distraction (much like comics when I was a child…) How ever it comes down to professional development before laptops/computers come into the classroom. There should be an honest discussion of how the new equipment will affect classroom management and the curriculum. Teachers should have time to explore how and why they will use the teachnology in ALL its forms in the classroom. This requires a commitment by the administration to provide time, equipment and professional development that moves beyond workshops covering the hardware and software. There should be sharing of successes and lessons that have worked and examples of good teaching practices. BTW if the lesson does not require technology remember you can always turn the laptop off.

  15. I’d be happy to be more specific. 1st of all, let me say that I don’t think for a second that computers should replace reading or literature books. Good old-fashioned books should always have a place. I’m talking about content area. Also, I have a program on my computer that allows me to see all of my kids’ screens on mine at once. I can even project it on the wall. If they’re off-task, they lose privileges. They take their computer access seriously.

    A full explanation would take far too long. Let me give a few examples. 1st of all, in the area of research: California does have state standards regarding the use of computers for research. I can’t remember the last time I saw an updated set of hard-copy encyclopedias. We sure don’t have them at our school. Too expensive, and quickly out of date. My kids have all the information available in an encyclopedia and more right at their fingertips if a question arises–they don’t have to go to the library. Word they need to look up? It’s not in the children’s dicationary? (This happens frequently.) They go to dictionary.com, where on top of the regular definition they can hear the word pronounced.

    For social studies and science, a wealth of information sits in that little box on their desk. They can go to National Geographic and find quick clips of animals to supplement their reading. My kids did a webquest on the Pony Express, in which they gathered information and completed a writing assignment. Books with that information were not available in our library. Our social studies and math curriculum both provide interactive activities that enable kids to watch video and complete writing and research on their computers.

    For math, my kids can practice their basic math facts using a plethora of online games. I don’t have to buy or make flash cards, and the games are so engaging that the kids learn their facts willingly. If a kid was out sick or just needs reinforcement, our math curriculum has an online component where the child can log in and see and hear a math teacher teach the day’s lesson.

    For writing, we use an online program. My kids write their first draft by hand, then type it into the computer. They make all revisions on the computer, and the program saves each version. I am able to imbed comments that they can easily access. No more worry about lost papers, and the kids are very motivated to revise and edit. I’ve never seen that before the laptops. They also share their writing in our district community, and teachers and students from other schools give them feedback. And yes, my kids’ writing scores did go up.

    That’s just a beginning. This is the first year they’ve all had mini-laptops. I had two times this year when a child was playing games when they were supposed to be doing something else. Apart from that, my kids have been totally engaged in learning.

    My district has always had computers available, even if it’s not a 1-1 ratio. The kids may not learn faster, but they learn MORE, and deeper because they can get their questions answered quickly. And our district’s test scores ARE significantly higher than the state average.

    I’m not a champion of just any technology in the classroom. I think Smartboards, interactive pads, and the like are a waste of time, money, and energy. But actual computers for children are in my opinion, absolutely necessary. They are the primary source of information for most people in today’s society. And we do refer to this as “The Information Age,” do we not?

  16. I shouldn’t say my district has ALWAYS had computers. But you get the gist.

  17. Yet without much exertion I can find schools, schools that are stuffed with kids who ought to be doing poorly according to their socio-economic status yet are exceeding state averages and hardly a computer in sight. A single school that doesn’t put as much weight on the use of computers as does yours yet manages to achieve similar outcomes undercuts your contention that the attainments of your district are due to the use of computers.

    I am a champion of just any technology in the classroom – that delivers.

    Sadly, the realities of public education put little weight on the delivery of worthwhile outcomes and much weight on the romance of young minds awakening to a world of possibilities. The use of computers in education follows that theme since its inevitably the professionals, at least the newly-minted professionals, who are wildly enthusiastic about the boundless possibilities and either assume that more mundane attainments will inevitably follow or are dismissive of those mundane attainments. Higher up the hierarchy those romantic notions are worthwhile because they provide the hope of progress without the wrenching changes necessary to the attainment of progress – the educational equivalent of “go-fast” decals on cars.

    To get back to the subject of open source textbooks, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that California will end up with cheap, good, e-textbooks.

    The cost of textbooks has spiraled so far into the stratosphere and California’s economic situation is so dire that the previously unthinkable, paying any attention to costs, might become a serious consideration but I wouldn’t give odds on it. The textbook publishers have a lot to loose and the visceral reaction of the public education system in aggregate will be to reject textbooks that are cheap and good on principle, the principle being that some things, specifically education, are far to important to be subject to vulgar economic considerations.

  18. Thomas Edison thought that the movie projector would make teachers obsolete. Instead of boring old lectures, students could *see* what was to be learned! And even in math, you could film one hotshot instructor’s lesson and then *all* students could get the benefit of that instructor’s knowledge and abilities.

    How’s that worked out so far?

    Computers are great tools, but they’re only tools–nothing more, nothing less. They’re just like a movie projector or even a pencil.

    If you think the internet is such a great place for teaching high schoolers about research, I think you have your techno-shields set to low power. Teaching about what a “scholarly source” is was hard enough back in the days when Mr. Ardary would take us to the library to do research papers; I hardly think that job is easier because of the internet.

  19. Teaching kids to recognize a scholarly source IS tougher with the internet. And it is absolutely necessary in today’s culture to teach them to do so. Further, using the internet for research, in combination with traditional methods, is written into my state’s standards beginning in elementary school. I don’t teach high schoolers–I teach fourth graders. By the time they reach high school, they need to understand how to use the tool properly. Computers aren’t instead of other sources, they’re an addition. And they provide my kids access to information that simply is not available in our school library, or even our small county libraries.

    However, it seems we’ve gotten of the subject of this post, which is the e-textbook. Yes, publishers will hate the idea because it would cost them a lot of sales in hard-copy books. Imagine–when a chapter in a book becomes outdated, we would no longer need to go out and buy millions of dollars worth of books as we now do in my state every seven years (whether the books are outdated or not). E-books could be updated with a simple internet update. It seems to me a cost-effective change that makes sense in the long run. And as I mentioned before, many new textbook series are already coming out with huge digital components–if not complete text versions online. It’s already there; we just need to figure out how to use it.

  20. When I was in elementary school we didn’t have very many textbooks…just a thought.

    I think though that if the digital textbooks are interactive that would be different. Young students LOVE working on the computer, so an interactive textbook would be exciting. But, if it’s anything like the kindle, I would probably claw my eyes out as a student. Textbooks in general tend to be dry, if we are going to bring textbooks into the world of technology, we should spice them up.

  21. Ragnarok says:

    “And as I mentioned before, many new textbook series are already coming out with huge digital components”

    I looked at some of this in connection with my son’s HW, and it was pretty depressing. It was clearly put together by someone for the sake of “being on the net”; no content, just fancy colours and silly verbiage.

  22. How is having the books on CD for a laptop making the use of technology a crutch? It’s the same book, just in digital format, on a CD. It’s not like comparing learning Algebra without a calculator vs. learning Algebra with a calculator.

    I would love to see the day when every student has a laptop and a CD case containing all their books. They’d still have a notebook, notes, pencils and pens, etc. and do their homework the old fashioned way on paper; they’d just be able to easily carry around and read all their books without shifting one of their vertebrae over the years.

  23. Alycia Bermingham says:

    I fall somewhere between being a techno immigrant and techno native. I love computers, I love technology – to a point. As a teacher in the late stages of training, my biggest complaint is that we’re pushed to use technology for the sake of technology, i.e. using power point instead of an overhead projector. It’s bollocks. As for putting books onto a cd or usb and making them easily accessible for students, without unneccessary ongoing landfill or damage to students’ backs etc – that’s not technology for the sheer hell of it. Therefore, it has some value.