Online multimedia textbooks: Follow-up

My letter to Secretary Spellings in the previous post about online multimedia textbooks is the outcome of a conversation that I had with Jim Hirsch, Associate Superintendent for Technology and Academic Services for the Plano (TX) Independent School District, at the TIES conference last December. I’m not the only one thinking on this front. For example, Scott McNealy, Chairman of the Board for Sun Microsystems, said last June that ‘technology trumps the textbook.‘ Similarly, four days ago Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, noted that textbooks as we know them will disappear.

To be honest, the two most visible free online textbook initiatives still have a long way to go. WikiBooks, a project of the Wikimedia Foundation, seems to be having a hard time getting off the ground; most of its content has yet to be created or is in the very earliest stages of development. Curriki, which is sponsored by Sun and has gotten a lot of media attention, so far seems to consist primarily of disparate resources and activities rather than comprehensive, meaningfully-organized textbooks. Both seem to be relying on volunteers’ efforts for most of the content. While both initiatives have potential, so far that potential remains unfulfilled. It’s early in the game, though. The National Repository of Online Courses (NROC) also is doing some interesting work but appears to be complementing, rather than replacing, print textbooks.

As my letter indicates, I think we need something more intentional and systematic. A strategic investment of monies could go a long way toward creating some pedagogically powerful, wonderfully engaging, online multimedia textbooks that then could be used by anyone in the country (or world). Can you imagine what a rich, interactive, media-saturated textbook a team of expert teachers, professors, and computer / Web programmers could create given a year’s time and $800,000 to play with (above and beyond their sabbatical salaries)? Can you imagine how fiscally and educationally empowering it would be for schools to have free and open access to 150 to 200 high-quality online multimedia textbooks created by the top experts in the country?

Clearly this an expensive venture from a raw dollar standpoint, at least to do it well. That said, the $200 million per year figure that I proposed represents less than 4 one-thousandths of the current federal discretionary funds allocated for K-12 education. The federal government clearly has the money to pull this kind of thing off. So might a consortium of states or maybe a large private foundation. As big as the numbers are, the return on this strategic investment would be HUGE.

Textbook publishers probably would oppose this idea. So might others, for a variety of political, educational, and sociological reasons. But Public Education Network CEO Wendy Puriefoy’s February 14 statement that "the new federal education budget is full of enthusiasm but lacks powerful ideas and transformative levels of funding" strikes home with me. I think this is a powerful, transformative idea whose time has come and I hope someone besides me will think big and make this happen.

11 Responses to “Online multimedia textbooks: Follow-up”

  1. Scott,
    This is an exciting possibility for me as an assistive & educational technology consultant. Many struggling students would now have access to interactive digital resources. When text is in a digital format, it is possible to attach a voice so that students can have the text read to them. Students with reading disabilities may have trouble decoding text, or with reading fluency and automaticity. This initiative allows them to have access to grade level material and not be “left behind.” They can highlight material and listen to it as often as necessary to understand the text. It’s an excellent, innovative, tranformative idea on many levels!
    (I knew you would have the answer to my textbook revenue question. Thanks!)

  2. I love the idea.

    I’ve been catching all of the same cues from leaders (McNealy & Jobs) and wondered how we get from here to there. The “wikipedia model” works, but will have a hard time getting to scale. I see where Curriki is going, but it’s missing something.

    Thanks for putting this idea out here.

  3. Scott, I’m trhilled to see this post, especially since I’ve been working on my own on-line Current Events Living Textbook. Every day I write a set of lesson ideas related to current events. I send them out in a newsletter. About a month later I post the lesson idea on my website: I’m planning on placing wikis next to each lesson. I’d also like to create podcasts about each topic. I’d be happy to read any comments that you might have about this website.


    Andrew Pass

  4. I am not sure textbook companies are going to shy away. Conversley, they should jump all over it. If they are the first to the table, they will use their buearacratic negotiating connections and end up billing the states the same amount for something that costs them way less. They will say the costs are tied to support and updating. Harcourt is already working that way:

    I just don’t think they are short-sighted. They realize the freight train is coming. They will just find a way to become the engineer if they are smart.

  5. The textbook companies do put up major roadblocks to this. I’ve done some consulting for and whenever there is some progress made, something bigger comes up to set the whole idea back.

    You would think that since the companies already have their content in a digital format, they would be willing to sell that content instead of the books. It would seem to save them money on the publishing costs, but the delivery system and keeping the content from being pirated is the problem. ESchoolBook has a great idea in theory. None of the content will actually be online though (other than downloading the books after purchasing the rights to download them). They can’t really move ahead until they get a large textbook company on board though.

  6. It is a terrific idea, Scott. In my doctoral studies, 99% of my research is done online. Students need the skills to use the computer learning content. One issue we are running into is the lack of available computers for students. We have a 4 to 1 ratio right now and we would need a much better ratio for something like this.

  7. Ah, but Steve, why think only in terms of “computers?” All students would need is a Web-capable device; anything from a smart-ish cell phone to a stripped down laptop would work. I’d bet that by the time Scott’s idea came to fruition (I’m not holding my breath, BTW), just about all school-aged kids would have access to such an e-reader device.

  8. Scott,
    While I don’t know a great deal on the topic what a great tool it will be once textbooks are online. I had my first experience with this in one of my previous classes where the professor (who wrote the text) gave us an electronic copy of the text to put on our flash drives. Instead of lugging books around, students will be able to carry countless pages of textbook material with them stored either on their laptop or flash drive. Maybe it will even help with the back problems many American’s suffer from…ok that’s a stretch, but you get my point.
    I do wonder how much of a roadblock the textbook publishers are causing for this. Because they would most likely take a financial hit due to students “sharing” the material, I wonder what their thoughts would be. Regardless, I believe it is safe to say it’s simply a matter of time.

  9. Just a heads up to folks about what’s happening over at Curriki. The site has been adding content and updating tools so that members can develop, publish, and access open source curricula. The new includes something called the Currikulum Builder – it’s an editing tool that allows members to develop curriculum materials through a collaborative, wiki-based platform. Here’s an interesting lesson that one educator created using the Currikulum Builder:

    There’s lots of great stuff and the more the community uses it, the better it will be. If you haven’t already, check it out.

  10. I don’t think it is a good idea to have texts read to kids. This may cause the education industry to simply quit teaching reading skills. I’ve found reading skills to be quite the foundation for, literally, everything else including reading directions (even on toys), reading math homework, even history and sciences.

    I’m finding the roadblock to creating curriculum my fear of copyright infringement and large publishing companies with bigger attorneys than mine (none). This is the first article I’ve read that addresses the issue I’ve been seeing:

    1. The infrastructure to collaborate and create usable, quality curriculum is now available – for free, no less.

    2. For some reason, there isn’t a lot of money available to actually CREATE quality curriculum.

    In addition, in my pursuit of trying to create quality FREE curriculum, I found:

    1. People don’t want to give away their Intellectual Property (IP) when creating curriculum

    2. The ideas for creating curriculum at early elementary grades are probably already copyright free. For instance, there are many books on teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic at the early grades under google books with expired copyright.

    3. People tend to talk about it (300 million people in the US alone), but no one is actually doing.

    4. There are many reasons to have curriculum for free, in addition to saving money. By placing curriculum into an electronic media you gain the following benefits:

    * Adaptable – if a set of instructions is weak, a teacher using the curriculum or a field testing teacher might login and either add to the discussion for the module or make a change in the module for the section. Furthermore, a teacher can make their own copy and customize it for his or her own use.

    * Portable – curriculum and scripted teacher instruction can be placed on a laptop and/or printed out. No more lugging books around. Student booklets can be easily printed in black and white or color and easily replaced.

    * Reduced costs – Student books can currently cost $50-$80 each. Workbooks can currently cost $10 to $20 each. Printed teacher editions can cost $80 on up.

    * Durable – electronic media can often be put into various types of formats such as a database, web page, or even printed in sections. Currently, teacher editions are spiral bound which can compress and become difficult to turn pages.

    * Expandable – the use of hyperlinks to get more information on an idea or item can assist teachers in learning the curriculum more completely and quickly.

    * Format/media – using electronic media allows curriculum to be developed in a way that is quicker for the teacher to learn to efficacy, thereby, allowing the teacher more time to work on student errors or more time to “punch up” the curriculum to make more fun. The use of small icons as cues can assist teachers in learning the curriculum more quickly.

    * Multimedia – the ability for a teacher to use pictures and short videos to make a point. Also allows the multimedia to include current events thus making the lessons more timely and linked to the students point of view.

    * Helpful for parents – parents of students with disabilities can help pre-teach or firm areas for students with disabilities that need extra practice. A teacher can print the information/workbooks or direct the parent to the wikibook website.

  11. Hi Scott, a fascinating blog! I came across this article on Twitter, an exciting future as South Korea aims to have a fully digitized Text Book curriculum by 2015!

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