Online multimedia textbooks: A strategic investment

[send this letter to Secretary Spellings, Director Magner, and Congress]

Honorable Margaret Spellings
United States Department of
400 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20202-7100

Dear Secretary Spellings,

The United States Department of Education currently administers a budget of
approximately $56 billion per year in discretionary monies. I am sending this
letter to encourage the Department to make a relatively small, but extremely
strategic, investment that would pay enormous dividends for our nation’s
elementary and secondary students.

For $200 million per year, the Department could create phenomenal,
mind-blowing online multimedia textbooks that could be used by students all
across the country. Imagine 50 teams, each made up of individuals who took a
paid sabbatical for one year, working to create rigorous, standards-based,
online textbooks that included text, graphics, electronic presentations, audio,
video, simulations, learning games, interactive problem-solving and review
activities, etc. The teams could be comprised as follows:

  • 16 expert teachers * $100,000 each = $1,600,000
  • 4 university professors * $100,000 each = $400,000
  • 8 computer / Web programmers * $100,000 each = $800,000
  • 1 assistive technology expert * $100,000 = $100,000
  • 1 national organization representative * $100,000 = $100,000
  • 1 project manager * $200,000 = $200,000
  • Communication and other software, supplies, travel, etc. =

Four teachers plus a professor plus two programmers equals a workgroup; four
workgroups per team. Each team receives ongoing feedback from a representative
from an appropriate national organization (e.g., National Council of Teachers of
Mathematics, National Council for Social Studies), has an assistive technology
expert to ensure content accessibility by students with disabilities, and has a
project manager to keep the workgroups moving along. The workgroups create
content; post that content online as they go along for review, comment, and
input from others; and, over the course of a year, create several units each
that add up to a complete, amazing, deep, rich online multimedia textbook.

Each year would see the completion of 50 textbooks. Over three or four years,
these Department-sponsored teams would create 150 to 200 textbooks for common,
key courses (e.g., Algebra I, Physics I, AP English, United States History, 5th
grade reading) that are present in nearly every school district nationwide.
Textbook content would be refreshed every three or four years to ensure content
relevance and usage of the latest digital technologies. If the textbooks were
wiki-based, much of the content could be revised and updated even before their
refresh cycle came due.

Once created, these textbooks then could be hosted by the Department, state
departments of education, and other entities or could be downloaded for hosting
on local school district servers. Federal provision of these textbooks would
free states and school districts to spend funds on laptops, classroom-level
high-speed wireless connectivity, and other technologies necessary to ensure the
global competitiveness of our students in the decades to come. All textbook
material would be free and openly accessible to our nation’s K-12 students and

I hope that you can see the instructional power of teachers and students
tapping into expert-created content delivered via the latest interactive,
engaging digital technologies. Although a few organizations (e.g., Wikibooks or
Curriki) are attempting to create free online textbooks or learning materials,
their reliance on volunteers has resulted in relatively little progress. A
strategic investment by the Department could make an extremely powerful
contribution to the K-12 educational landscape and would be a powerful lever
toward ensuring that all students had access to top-quality, engaging learning

Please consider instituting a national online textbook initiative. I believe
that this is an idea whose time has come and would welcome the opportunity to
discuss this further with you.


Dr. Scott McLeod
Assistant Professor, Department of Educational
Policy and Administration
Director, UCEA Center for the Advanced Study
  Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE)
Affiliate Faculty, Law
University of Minnesota

13 Responses to “Online multimedia textbooks: A strategic investment”

  1. Scott,
    Thank you – you challenge assumptions with new ideas. This would shake up the textbook industry!
    Two questions for you – do you know how much revenue the textbook publishers generate annually?
    Totally different subject – Is there a way to determine how much money is paid by teachers for teachers’ unions? Aren’t teachers’ unions an idea whose time has passed? Couldn’t that money be better spent elsewhere?

  2. Karen, according to Forbes (, as of 2000 the elementary and secondary textbook industry is about $4 billion.

    I have no idea what the total amount of teacher union dues is in this country. NEA and AFT have that info but I don’t know if they’d release it. Regarding the issue of whether or not the idea of teacher unions is one whose time has passed, I think I’ll be safe and just say that lots of people don’t think so. =)

  3. Thanks, Scott, but this is a pretty simplistic idea. Strong instructional materials are much more complicated to develop that you’ve described–review the history of NSF and post-Sputnik materials development efforts. The industry right now has realized that providing paper bound books is only part of the solution–training, support, assessments, etc is part of the value proposition as well. And most importantly, changing teacher practice involves more than just providing good tools to teachers–it involves developing a comprehensive system of support that fosters teaching and learning. Your proposal sounds like you’re seduced by the magic of technology. The real magic happens between teachers and students.

  4. Michael, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I always appreciate the opportunity to receive feedback and refine my thinking about what I write.

    I’m not claiming that my proposed structure represents a complete solution, just that this is an idea worth considering (with whatever adjustments are necessary). Maybe my numbers are low. Although I envisioned the teams including assessments as part of the textbook creation process, maybe we need another $1 million (or more) per team to create those assessments. I’m not sure what the numbers would be – I just threw out a back-of-the-envelope calculation – but whatever they would be, they still would be a pittance of the overall federal education budget.

    In return for the relatively minimal federal investment I propose, however, we’d replace a significant expense for school districts across the country and thus free up a much greater amount of capital for other things (more teachers, laptops for students, whatever). This wouldn’t replace all expenses. For example, the training and support structure costs that you cite might still exist and could be picked up by textbook publishers, curricular organizations, or other entities. But the core would be free, openly accessible, and hopefully modifiable by local educators.

    I guess I have more faith than you that a team of content experts, pedagogical experts, and computer programmers such as I describe could create a pretty powerful, multimedia-rich, engaging, standards-based online textbook that would be attractive to most states and school districts across the country.

    I don’t think I’m seduced by the power of technology, as you say, and I definitely didn’t argue anywhere in my post against the importance and the magic of teacher-student interactions. In contrast, I can see the textbooks that I describe as being incredibly powerful resources because they would enable educators and students to access more engaging, rich learning materials than what currently passes for textbooks in most elementary and secondary classrooms. Moreover, these digital materials could be modified relatively easily to remain current, take advantage of new presentation / interactive technologies, etc.

    I’d be interested in hearing more from you about whether (and why) you think that paper textbooks would be preferable to what I’m proposing. If you don’t believe that, why not support my proposal (with any needed modifications)?

  5. Hi Scott,

    All I have to say is are you looking for Canadians in this? I’d be happy to get involved in something like this – to break away from the notion that we need to follow the textbook. It would force the education system to move forward instead of hiding behind the “wait and see, this too shall pass” mantra that is so common. I agree that the real connection comes from teacher and student interactin but isn’t it about time we moved to connect with students where THEY are not where the teacher happens to be. After all, it is their education!

  6. Scott:

    This is a truly intriguing plan. I think the synergy that could be created by bringing together the teams from around the country would be amazing. I hope that someone at the Department of Education will pick up the ball and move it up the queue. I think in the interim, we should all create more course work that could be rolled into a single project and used for proof of concept.

  7. I was looking at one thing there, the AP English text. I had no text for AP English, we had the literature books themselves, which got me to thinking…what about units, module or node lessons in web/multimedia instead of giant texts?

    Just a thought?

  8. Yeah, AP English probably wasn’t the best example from my tired brain early this morning. I think modules or units would be fine as long as they were part of some coherent curriculum. The problem with Curriki, as I see it, is that so far all the good stuff seems to lack an overarching framework to cohere it all together into a meaningful whole.

  9. Hey, I was just trying to be a pain in the tushie. Wouldn’t this run into problems with state curriculum boards? I bet my state (California) and some other big guys could run their own program, or edit what came down.

    Union dues = ~$1000 a year
    The value of having legal representation with your employer without having to pay for it yourself = priceless

    Sorry for the plug for the union label Scott, I couldn’t resist 😉

  10. Scott,
    Thanks for this.
    The notion of rationalizing education and introducing modern (industrial) models to the creation and distribution of education has been around for over a decade now. To my surpise, this logic – which has its obvious advantages to the current ‘cottage’ model – has made little headway. An early writer on this subject is Eli Noam, a communications scholar (actually, I’ve found that many of the people that originally identified the ‘irrational’ quality of e-learning were from the fields of media and communications). You can find work by Dr. Noam at

  11. Scott,
    I know that this post is just more than 1 year old, but did you ever get a response to this letter? I just posted a blog entry the other day about a very similar project. Perhaps this would need to be a grassroots effort to develop the curriculum without the $4B per year textbook companies. My post is located at:

    John Case

  12. I’m beginning to wonder if Secretary Spellings has learned to read blogs. It’s possible, you know, that she doesn’t know how to search for things addressed specifically to her.

    When I grow up, I want to teach our leaders to be literate. Even/Especially if they are in charge of our country’s education.

  13. This is still a good idea. The textbook cycle is way too slow for modern times.

    In a way, It is also happening already. (Fall 2009)

    Why should California be doing this alone when it can be done with this systematic approach?

    I really hope that when this happens in my school we don’t have a bunch of teachers hitting the print button, walking the text over to a photocopy machine and making a bunch of paper copies for their students!

    My two cents on the union dues…
    A Mercer is right. What they buy is priceless. I would also add they come out of MY pocket. They are worth every cent. If they weren’t, they would be going into my kids’ college fund, not my classroom.

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