Are textbooks going the way of the horse and buggy?

An interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times on changes coming to a classroom near you: digital textbooks. The article, by Tamar Lewin, talks about pilot projects in school districts in Arizona, Louisiana and California that are replacing traditional printed textbooks with online, digital equivalents, or even “open source” texts compiled from materials and lessons generated by teachers or from public (and reliable) sources of information online.

There’s no question that hard copy texts are a huge expense for school districts, including Belmont, and that — being printed — they become out of date more or less at the moment they leave the print shop. Dust-ups about the teaching of religion, Darwin’s theory of evolution (gasp!) or, more recently, civil rights have also underscored the ways that the preferences of a couple big textbook markets like California and Texas can determine what appears in textbooks throughout the country, as textbook publishers play to the middle (or more like: the far right) rather than having to customize content for 50 different states. Couple that with tendency of cash strapped school districts (including our own) to try to get by one more year (and one more year, and one more year) with their existing textbooks, and you end up with students studying from drastically outdated texts in subjects like history, social studies and the sciences. Online texts don’t have that problem: their content can be updated in realtime to meet changing circumstances, new discoveries or evolved understanding. The Times story highlights Beyond Textbooks, a program pioneered by Vail, Arizona, to create its own, online texts and shared learning materials that are tightly tailored to the state’s standards. It also mentions a directive from California’s “Governator,” Arnold Schwarzenegger, to replace high school science and math texts with free, “open source” digital versions — a move that could save cash strapped California  hundreds of millions of dollars a year in text book purchases.

As always, however, online texts raise the specter of the “digital divide” once again — the nagging fact that not all children in this country have a computer at home, and that the digital divide tracks pretty closely to the (gaping) income divide. Though not as much an issue in Belmont, this could be a big issue in state-wide drives to move to online texts, as communities bump up against hard social and economic realities. Still — the prospect of instruction moving to online, multi media content that is dynamically updated, well vetted and delivered at a fraction of the cost of hardcopy texts is bound to be enticing to school districts nationally — economic crisis or no.