- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

The California Department of Education is moving forward on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to scrap printed high school textbooks for digital ones.

But issues surrounding student access to computers and the credibility of the information could pose potential problems for educators.

The Free Digital Textbook Initiative aims to research free digital high school textbooks that meet state content standards - allowing them to be easily accessible and quickly updated.

The goal is to help decrease the state’s $23.5 billion budget deficit. Last year, it spent $350 million on textbooks alone, which was down from $419 million the year before.

Tom Adams, director of the state’s Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division, said local school districts will decide whether to use the free digital material, which must be a full program, covering a year’s worth of standards.

“These are free digital textbooks, and no one has ever reviewed those,” Mr. Adams said.

Schools won’t pay a dime for the material, but the research is costing the group, he said.

But free doesn’t always mean quality.

Schools need to know the difference between digital and open-source texts before making the switch, said Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division at the Association of American Publishers Inc., which publishes high school texts.

“Major school publishers certainly have digital materials they make available to schools that is purchased and is a comprehensive curriculum aligned to a state’s standards,” Mr. Diskey said. “But open source is free online digital material, which may not be [based] on state educational standards or sound research.”

Illinois officials began looking into digital textbooks this year, but that plan is contingent upon state appropriations, said Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

If the money comes in, officials would test digital technologies in three geographically diverse school districts, part of which would include looking at alternative textbook formats. As of right now, nothing is mandated, Mr. Vanover said.

In a San Jose Mercury News op-ed piece last week, Mr. Schwarzenegger wrote about the need to transition to digital.

“Especially now, when our school districts are strapped for cash and our state budget deficit is forcing further cuts to classrooms, we must do everything we can to untie educators’ hands and free up dollars so that schools can do more with fewer resources,” he wrote.

But access to technology could prove difficult for some of California’s 2 million high school students.

Dan Dawson, a math teacher at Silver Creek High School in San Jose, Calif., said his district will be affected by the digital initiative in the fall.

“It’s a very small piece to a much bigger problem,” he said. “In California, we are now virtually at the bottom for student funding nationwide. We need to look at things that would generate revenue. It’s fine to go ahead with this piece, but we need to guarantee equity of access.”

And as his classroom sizes nearly tripleafter statewide cuts in education funding, Mr. Dawson said he was not sure whether that would be successful.

Content developers will submit their digital textbooks, beginning with math and science, by Monday to the California Learning Resources Network for review by experts, teachers and government officials. The results of the review will be released Aug. 10.

While the push to go digital gains momentum, some schools lack the resources to keep up.

Locally, though schools in the District are not going completely digital anytime soon, phasing out printed textbooks is not the answer for Anita Drayton Wood, assistant principal at Anacostia Senior High School in Southeast.

“The digital access will enhance the classroom, but many students will have to have books as well - maybe as a supplemental source,” Mrs. Wood said.

For economically disadvantaged schools like Anacostia, there’s a digital divide, she said.

“We can’t get [the material] to everybody every time,” Mrs. Wood said.

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