Its all about access to information

Written by Neeru Khosla on August 27, 2009
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Many of you may have already read that California announced findings from their digital and free textbooks initiative.  Many of you may have also received an email from us about this. We salute all the organizations and individuals that took part in this initiative.These people are real givers and care about what is happening in education.

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And, what of the results? In brief, of the 16 donations –10 books were 90% or above aligned to State Standards, of which 6 were from CK-12.Out of these 16 books 4 books had 100% alignment; here again CK-12 had 3 books.Our lowest scoring book had 83% alignment.We are absolutely going to make it close to 100%.In the meantime, we have plenty of challenges to solve.

The take away for the organization

The naysayers are worried that a digital textbook is just a collection of links and multimedia with no coherent outline.This is however, far from the truth with our content.We have spent a lot of time trying to ensure state standard alignment as well as quality of content.Practicing teachers from across the nation have reviewed books in their subject expertise, supplemented by 40 high school intern’s feedback, thoughts and wishes.

Access to technology has become an issue in K-12 education.Some worry about all students not having access to computers or the Internet at school or at home, and think that students shouldn’t spend all their time in front of the computer; what they forget is that the solution is simple – one can print digital textbooks.  In addition, the future requires that students be comfortable and adept at using computers.It is the tool for the next generation. If we do not provide computers, American students will be left behind.Do we want our children to grow up and have to go overseas to find work where all the jobs are going to be?Can you imagine our children being illegal immigrants looking for greener pastures?

Others say that there will be no cost savings because of the technology costs.  There is concern about finding a standardized format to deliver books, which can also be loaded onto e-readers.  A few think that digital textbooks will hurt students with learning differences; others think it will help them.

Many of these concerns point to something that happens when people are given new options – their minds are set in the old way, they are afraid of the new and the unknown. We have addressed these challenges with our product and delivery of the product – by creating an online reader, and providing a print format for students that do not have access to computers.This project is not about creating more of a digital divide but about providing access to information for all students.

People are concerned that we are regurgitating Wikipediaarticles or random hyper links or YouTube videos.  We are far from this.When we incorporate outside mresources, we carefully place each of these items in context. During the summer we had 20 high school interns who went through our content finding examples of videos or multimedia links and placing them in the right spot.

Many have compared us to Wikipedia or asked how we differ from Wikipedia. Indeed most people forget that Wikipedia was seeded with content from Encyclopedia Britannica and then only later did Wikipedia became the collaborative site it is today.Even now though there are millions of articles and users, in reality only a small percent of people work on the articles.In fact, there are many articles that are the voice of just one.We are still at an early stage in our development, analogous to where Wikipedia was when they seeded their project.

Richard Koman is right when he says “Hmm, no funding for hardware, no funding for teacher training, no requirement to implement. Sounds like pissing in the wind.”

In California, K-12 schooling has a mandate that every student have their own books (Williams Act, 2000) and those funds can only be used for textbooks. There is no way to redirect those funds for anything else, not even to fund printing digital books.There are no funds for teachers if they decide not to buy textbooks from publishers and use digital books instead. Very often the textbooks are lying around while the teachers are putting together their own curriculum.As a district you cannot afford to lose the money that the state gives you to purchase textbooks.This is really what Koman means when he contends that a lack of funding is going to cripple this initiative and we agree.We need to have the state put their money where their mouth is.

Let me reiterate the basic facts about CA initiative –

  • These are HS textbooks
  • These HS textbooks are free and digital
  • This program was announced with a very short delivery period
  • Students don’t need a computer to read these books as long as there is one computer and access to a printer or even a memory stick to take home or take to FedEx- Kinko’s like entities for printing
  • These Flexbooks are locked in PDF format for two years for the initiative; however they will be improving even more during that time and one can go to our website and use the improved versions.
  • You can print as much of the Flexbooks as you need or want
  • This initiative was not a competition but open to everyone to participate.  None of the traditional publishers other than Pearson availed of this opportunity
  • This is an open educational resource (OER), which means that the project and the products will continually evolve.  If you have been following our progress in the last one year you would have seen that. One of the fundamental differences is that Open Source is implicit for software whereas OER is specific for education resource


So what are people saying about our work?

We have been following many of the social websites such as Twitter, Slashdot, as well as other blogs that have been following the development of the CA Initiative and most of them show their excitement and are saying that this is  “the future of the textbooks.”  A few show skepticism about the delivery of the books. Some folks are frustrated that the formatting is not correct or perfect.  I am thrilled that people are talking about this, as it will set the bar for us.  However we have to be realistic and recognize the fact that this is not easy to do right from the start.  We have to create automation.

There is also some confusion about the licensing.  We have licensed our content as Creative Common by attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.  This license allows one to take content from our site and mix and match it.  However, any improvements made are also considered under this license, i.e. all improvement must be shared with community at large.

We are not perfect yet, we might never be.  Since these books are generated through automated programming the format is hard to get right/perfect.  The content is not hand-formatted like regular publishing, hence they may not have the same formatting people expect.  Because we are a young organization that has only just started our work, we will make things much better.  We are also working on a LaTex version that will be out by next month.

Some people want to have the ability to have multiple books open at the same time.  Perhaps one can do that in a multiple windows view such that you can go back and forth between the texts.   They also want the ability to use these books the way that we use them today – annotating, highlighting and to be able to keep these books forever. Please be patient we are doing all these things – as resources allow.  On the other hand the books are yours to keep forever.  Enjoy!!