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Tag: california

Open Sourcing Textbooks

Based on legislation signed into law this week by California’s governor Jerry Brown, the state is taking the first steps toward becoming a major player in the textbook industry. And maybe changing it completely.

The new legislation encompasses two bills: One, a proposal for the state to fund 50 open-source digital textbooks, targeted to lower-division courses, which will be produced by California’s universities. (Students will be able to download these books for free or pay $20 for hard copies.) The other bill is a proposal to establish a California Digital Open Source Library to host those books.

Even better, the law requires that all “books” in the library be released under a Creative Commons license and encoded in XML, making it easy for all of the materials to be reused and repurposed by anyone.  The potential benefits to education go way beyond just saving money.

But getting the law passed was probably the easiest part of the process. It’s not likely the textbook industry will sit by and watch their hugely profitable market dry up. Expect plenty of legal challenges.

However, lawsuits aside, once this project gets rolling, we also need for some state – or maybe an overly-large school district – to begin the same process for K12.

Speedometers Don’t Improve Performance

The California legislature recently passed a bill that would establish a new system for evaluating schools in that state, one in which student test scores were weighted less heavily and added other measures to the mix.

The governor vetoed the bill, but for many of the right reasons.

Finally, while SB547 attempts to improve the API [Academic Performance Index], it relies on the same quantitative and standardized paradigm at the heart of the current system. The criticism of the API is that it has led schools to focus too narrowly on tested subjects and ignore other subjects and matters that are vital to a well-rounded education. SB547 certainly would add more things to measure, but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine. [My emphasis]

I love that analogy! But I digress and he continues.

SB547 nowhere mentions good character or love of learning. It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream. Lost in the bill’s turgid mandates is any recognition that quality is fundamentally different from quantity. [His emphasis]

Of course, California is not the only state where an overemphasis on testing a very few basic skills has narrowed the curriculum and produced an extremely skewed picture of student learning and school quality.

At least they have a governor who is willing to challenge the idea that standardized tests are the only, or even the best, measure of educational quality. Can we get someone like that in Virginia?

A Potentially Dismal Future

Not too long ago Amazon released the Kindle DX, a larger version of their e-book reader and the notices were pretty good with many of the reviewers speculating that this device could be the future of textbooks.

If that true then the future of education is pretty bleak.

The Kindle itself is an interesting piece technology that by all reports is excellent at it’s job. However, that job is to deliver content that is controlled by and makes money for the publisher.

That’s not an evolution of instructional materials. Hardly a revolution. It’s a very small shift in the current textbook distribution business.

Between the digital “rights” management (DRM)* that comes with the books and being chained to one source (ie. the publishers willing to work with Amazon), this “future textbook” does little more than solidify the hold of a few giant publishers.

Instead we should be developing open source textbooks created and edited by large numbers of experts of all kinds (teachers and students included) and which anyone, anywhere in the world, in a formal school setting or not, could access.

In addition to editable text, online “textbooks” (is that even a valid term anymore?) could include still images, audio, video, and animation from a variety of sources, all of which present the information using a variety of learning styles.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of very tentative experiments such as Algebra in Connecticut and HS science in Virginia. Even the governator of California wants to try it, although primarily as a way for the state to save money, not because he’s necessarily a fan of user-edited educational materials.

It’s certainly going to take the backing of some 800 pound consumers like California (or maybe a certainly overly-large school district?) if the concept of open source texts are ever going to gain any traction.

But the bottom line to all this is that moving publisher-controlled, DRM-locked printed textbooks into a digital form accessible only on proprietary portable devices is no step into the future.

It chains us to the past.

Update (6/14): Today in his blog, Seth Godin, über marketing guru, agrees with me (although I doubt he actually read my rant :-) and offers his own ideas on why the textbook industry needs to die. He even goes so far as to accuse professors who continue to require them of “academic malpractice”.

* EFF explains why DRM on e-books will fail.

Testing Prescription

California’s Governator has vetoed a bill that would have mandated public schools in the state to teach about climate change as part of the science curriculum.


In his veto statement, Schwarzenegger said he supported education that spotlights the dangers of climate change. However, the Republican governor said he was opposed to educational mandates from Sacramento.

“I continue to believe that the state should refrain from being overly prescriptive in specific school curriculum, beyond establishing rigorous academic standards,” he said.

“Overly prescriptive”? Don’t look now but we’re already doing that to the school curriculum as a result of the whole do-or-die standardized testing structure in the US.

The narrow focus of the exams on the lowest common denominator of reading and math skills basically prescribes the curriculum studied by students in most California schools and elsewhere.

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