Digital Textbooks May Lighten Students' Backpacks

If Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has his way, California high school students will soon be able to fit their textbooks on a flash drive. The governor recently announced that 10 digital textbooks meet the state's standards for math and science. The textbooks are free and could save the cash-strapped state millions of dollars. Guest host David Greene finds out more from Glen Thomas, California's secretary of education.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

Even with all of the new technology that links far-flung campuses or teaches with games and podcasts, most classrooms still use mid-15th century technology: books. But maybe not for long. California is about to become the first state in the country to approve digital textbooks for high school students.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced last week that 10 digital textbooks meet California state standards for math and science classes. The textbooks are free. That's a tempting price for school districts in the cash-strapped state. But critics worry that some schools don't have the technology needed to use the new books.

Glen Thomas is California's secretary of education. He joins us by phone to tell us a little more about the initiative. Welcome to the program.

Dr. GLEN THOMAS (Secretary of Education, California): Thank you, David. Glad to be here.

GREENE: I'm trying to get some sort of mental image here. Can you describe to me what a digital textbook actually looks like, and how students and teachers can actually access one?

Dr. THOMAS: Sure. Well, the digital textbooks are free, open-source, downloadable - they're actually in PDF file - and printable materials that constitute a full course of study - in this case, high school math and science subjects.

GREENE: So I go onto my computer, and I sort of go to the book I'm interested in, download the whole PDF, print it out - and I've got a book on paper, essentially.

Dr. THOMAS: If you want to do that. You can print it lesson-by-lesson, chapter-by-chapter as well.

GREENE: Why did Governor Schwarzenegger think these digital textbooks would be a good idea for California high schools at this point?

Dr. THOMAS: Well, Governor Schwarzenegger very much recognizes that our society is increasingly digital and that kids these days are on their cell phones, they're on their computers. I think it's our responsibility as educators and as policymakers to ensure that our education keeps up with the changing needs of our students.

Further, I think it's worth noting that other countries - Turkey, India, South Korea, Singapore - have embraced more complex systems of digital education. So if we want our students to stay competitive, we have to ensure that our system supports digital education as well.

GREENE: Well, his support, the governor's support of digital textbooks, you know, it comes at this time when California's budget is in pretty deep trouble. Is this going to save the state a lot of money? And if so, how much are we talking?

Dr. THOMAS: Well, an average high school textbook costs in excess of $100. So, you can compute - if you had a class of 35 students, then you can compute how much you would save based on how many teachers were trying out the digital textbook.

GREENE: You're going to force us to do a math lesson right here on the air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: Somewhere down the line, there has to be someone paying for these though, right? I mean they can't be totally free.

Dr. THOMAS: There's nothing for free.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. THOMAS: A number of these are books - were developed by foundations, which they have seen as their purpose in developing open content. And I might just say, the traditional textbook publishers have also been very active in this space. It's just that their materials are not free.

GREENE: We're talking to Glen Thomas, who's California's secretary of education. And Dr. Thomas, as I mentioned earlier, some people think these textbooks are not a realistic solution, at least for high schools that don't have many computers. I mean, is there a chance that as you're sort of moving into this modern era, as you say, that some of those schools are going to get left behind?

Dr. THOMAS: No, I don't think so. For one thing, teachers have options - and so do parents and students, I might add. So a teacher can download and bind the traditional textbook.

GREENE: Oh, I see. So a teacher could actually print it out, you know, using the digital form, and make it available in a hardcopy to the students.

Dr. THOMAS: Correct. I actually visited a classroom where some of the students had a printed version and some had just a chapter, where they were actually taking notes, and they were keeping track of the chapters in a binder.

GREENE: Well, what is the scope of this? How many school districts do you think will adopt these new textbooks, now that the governor's sort of given the blessing?

Dr. THOMAS: I think there will be many high schools where there will be one or more teachers trying out some of these textbooks at the beginning of school. But it's too early to tell just yet.

GREENE: Glen Thomas is California's secretary of education. Dr. Thomas, thanks so much for joining us.

Dr. THOMAS: Thank you.

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