The Future of Textbooks, Coming to Texas

By Phil West, Principal, Luminaria Media & Public Relations

Proponents of digital books don’t need much convincing to understand the possibilities that digital instructional materials would bring to students. In addition to the obvious advantages of digital text over printed text — such as being able to edit science and social studies texts to keep up with current events and new developments — digital text can integrate with new and emerging technologies more effectively and seamlessly than printed text.

Thanks to legislation authored by Texas State Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), and passed by the Texas State Legislature this May, the Texas Education Agency has been given the ability to create a repository of digital instructional content for the state’s K-12 students. Given that the TEA is about to issue its first RFP calling for content, the state could deliver e-books and other digital instructional materials to its students as early as the 2010-11 school year.

Hochberg notes that the new law offers an immediate and significant cost savings to taxpayers, as Texas alone spends close to $500 million to replace and update its worn out textbooks each year.

Hochberg estimates that the content makes up only 10 percent of that figure. He notes that even when figuring in costs to distribute content, provide books for those school districts opting for print-on-demand books, and loan and/or purchase computers for school districts wanting to utilize online content, the cost savings would – even using the most conservative estimates – slice the current textbook allotment for state students in half.

If the $250 million in savings isn’t incentive enough, the legislation brings with it the potential for computer software, video, and other learning technologies to be integrated with digital instructional content. Hochberg, who is particularly interested by this aspect of the legislation, noted, “By separating the content from the physical textbook, we create unlimited opportunities for teachers and entrepreneurs to find more effective ways to present this material.”

“This can be for instruction what the iPhone is to cell phones,” he added. “You want something to turn a math problem into something that has connection to the kid’s world? There can be an app for that! Or how about something to give parents a nightly report of what concepts their children are having trouble learning and where to find help? There can be an app for that, too.”

The potential new direction for textbooks in Texas — and for other states prone to following Texas’ lead in the textbook arena — isn’t without its naysayers, including hesitations from the State Board of Education, who worry that they’ll be ceding control over what gets taught in Texas.

Hochberg counters the State Board of Education’s position by noting, “Teachers are putting together their own digital materials from the web every day.  By building a state-certified digital content library, we can gain the advantages of digital, without giving up the content review that Texas has traditionally held at the state level.”

And at least one editorial board, The Longview News-Journal, frets that though they don’t want to be thought of as Luddites, “we do believe there is a real value in teaching children how to read and learn with real books printed on real paper.”

Yet, as Hochberg points out, in a world with printed textbooks, decisions about what to teach children are impacted by the amount of time it takes a textbook binding to wear out. With this new legislation set to change our notions of the textbook forever, we’re no longer bound (no pun intended) by those limitations.

Phil West is principal of Luminaria Media & Public Relations, a communications firm based in Austin, and has served as an adjunct English professor at universities and colleges in Austin and San Antonio. West ran a campaign for Hochberg this fall on the digital instructional material legislation in Texas.

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