Oct 10, 2010

Texas Expanding Use of K-12 Electronic Texts

By Donnie Hogan

Texas kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers will soon start using free electronic textbooks, some as early as fall 2010. The move could lead, slowly, toward eliminating mass-marketed hardback textbooks from Texas classrooms.

The Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education in the state, refers to free e-textbooks as “open-source” texts and defines them as interactive, online electronic texts available to students and teachers free of charge. The availability of these materials lets students and teachers use a variety of applications for audio, video, images, graphics and text from any place that has Internet access.

5210texts1The term is not synonymous with the well-known “open-source” software movement, in which no single person or group holds the rights to the products. Some textbooks remain under copyright, with the rights holder making the text available free with some restrictions on adaptation and re-use.

The Texas Legislature created the program in 2009, and in November the TEA voted to move forward. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, vice chairman of the Public Education Committee, and Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the Higher Education Committee, each sponsored a bill. Branch’s bill called for allowing open-source textbooks while Hochberg’s provided for them to pay for them with of state textbook money. Both were signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on June 19, 2009.

The TEA is now taking bids from various publishers and online content providers, and that has meant some changes at agency educational content meetings. While the texts are often offered free to students, the e-text providers contract with multiple textbook publishers, extending their reach and expanding familiarity with the texts.

The timing is fortuitous. In the first two weeks of March, 2010, the Texas Board of Education finalized guidelines for Texas history and social studies curricula for the next 10 years. The debate over what to include was contentious for a couple of reasons. First, because conservatives dominate both the state and the Texas Board of Education, critics charge that the curriculum tends to lean to the right ideologically–for example, favoring creationism over evolution or minimizing the roles of minorities in history in favor of Europeans. Second, Texas is home to 4.7 million students, one of the largest textbook markets in the country. That makes the Lone Star State a guidepost for the nation as a rich environment in which to sell books, be they print or electronic.

“Our world has changed,” said Anita Givens of the TEA Instructional Materials Division. “Such meetings once drew only traditional publishers, but we had inquiries from Apple, Dell and several other digital content publishers.”

5210texts2Traditional publishing giants McGraw-Hill and Pearson Education also submitted bids. Company representatives declined to comment for this article.

Several states, including California and Virginia, have integrated free textbooks into their classrooms starting this year, and the California Education Department announced plans to beef up classroom use and digital media libraries for the future.

Hochberg said he wants Texas to take a bigger step by actually buying the content, which would let the state tailor it to meet its own standards. He said other states are putting glorified PDFs of textbooks online, whereas he plans to make a variety of multimedia materials available to students and teachers.

“I don’t know of any state that is implementing this the way we plan to,” Hochberg said. “It’s not just about putting a book online. It’s about using this as a platform for multisensory learning. I believe most of the best things to come from this we haven’t even thought of yet.”

“Open-source textbooks require costly resources that not all schools have, including computer equipment, adequate bandwidth, and training for teachers and technology support staff,” said Mike White, an analyst for TexasCurriculum.org. Texas Curriculum is an advocacy organization sponsored by the Association of American Publishers, which lobbies lawmakers and educators about available textbooks.

Not all of Texas’s 5 million schoolchildren have online access at home, and some school districts lack the infrastructure to support open-source content, White said. “How do we guarantee all children will have equal access to these materials, particularly those disadvantaged children in low-income school districts?” he said.

5210texts3Hochberg acknowledges that those problems have to be solved, but he says open-source content can be part of the solution.

The state spent $264 million last year in hardcover textbook replacements, which Hochberg says is about normal. He estimates implementation of open-source textbooks would only cost the state $20 million.

“If we’re spending upwards to $200 million less each school year on hardbacks, we can use that money to start programs to make sure every teacher is trained and every student has Internet access in the classroom and at home,” Hochberg said.

“We want this to be an educational building tool rather than old textbooks sitting on shelves.”