Calif. may swap print books for digital

The state thinks it can save money using online tools, but critics are wary of e-learning on the cheap.

By Maha Atal, contributor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has a new weapon in his war on state's bloated budget: electronic textbooks.

Earlier this month, he announced an initiative that permits school districts to replace print textbooks with free digital ones, and lifts a state earmark rule to let districts pocket the savings. The program has already raised "digital divide" issues about whether disadvantaged students will suffer. But Schwarzenegger promises his plan will enable "schools to do more with fewer resources."

Schwarzenegger is hardly the first leader to see technology as a driver of efficiency. From digital health records to smart grids, businesses and government agencies are latching on to the web as a way to save trees, time, and money during the recession. And today's schoolchildren, raised on technology, in fact may learn better through interactive tools than printed books.

Experts say such digital transformations can bring down long-term costs. But at the outset, digital systems cost more -- not less -- than the outdated infrastructure they replace. As a result, some critics worry Schwarzenneger's proposal is doomed, in part because he is positioning it as a way to cut costs in the short term.

There are already worrying signs that California is trying to go digital on a shoestring. Traditionally, publishers provide schools with a complete package: student textbooks, teacher's guides with sample lessons and tests, and teacher training courses. In the emerging model, teachers must assemble their own package, combining e-books with free course "wikis" (shared online resources any user can update or revise), and networking with other teachers over the web to share best practices. It's a new responsibility some would prefer to avoid.

The drawbacks

There are concerns too about the quality of the online tools teachers can choose from, as anyone who has used online encyclopedia Wikipedia can probably understand.

Even Bobbi Kurshan, executive director of wiki Curriki.org, a community-based online lesson-planner, has misgivings about the e-books she submitted to California for review.

The state asked Curriki to provide educators with static materials -- essentially a snapshot of a course -- but in reality the resources change every day as the community of users updates it. "What we've submitted hasn't had the process of community review," she says, "so it's not really the best we have to offer."

California's Education Secretary Glen Thomas tells Fortune.com that the state is committed to making the digital transition as seamless -- and as equitable -- as possible.

"We're redefining equity from one textbook for one student to content for each student," he says. Some critics fret the program will disadvantage students who don't have access to laptop computers or pricey electronic readers such as Amazon's Kindle.

But Thomas paints a different picture of how digital learning will work: Each teacher will have his or her own electronic copy of the book, which can be projected on-screen during class; Teachers will distribute printed handouts for students to study at home.

That is how e-resources work in the San Jose school district, where a pilot program has been running this year. Assistant superintendent Bill Erlendson says it's still too early to see changes in test scores or other performance metrics, but San Jose teachers report improvements. Some 87% of teachers finished the first year with a favorable impression of open source teaching tools, and 62% plan to continue and expand their use.

Classrooms in other states are adopting similar models. Texas recently passed a law that will permit districts to replace textbooks with digital resources. Schools must purchase one complete set of curricular materials -- which can be digital -- for each classroom. A new committee will review digital resources to ensure that they meet state standards, while the State Board of Education continues to have review power over printed texts.

Finally, instead of letting districts pocket the funds saved by buying one e-subscription instead of 30 books, the Texas bill diverts those funds to purchase laptops and other technology needed to access the new resources.

While in theory, California school districts could use their savings the same way, that would undercut the Governor's cost-cutting agenda. And if cash-strapped superintendents see digital resources as inextricable from these other investments, they may not opt in at all.

Of course, for all the attention e-learning is getting in California, it is helpful to put the potential cost savings in perspective. According to state reports, textbooks make up just 1% of school district budgets. To top of page

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