Arnold Schwarzenegger via Wikipedia - public domain photo All educational publishers know the holy trinity of textbook publishing: California, Florida and Texas. And winning or losing one out of three of these states in an adoption can tip the economic balance of any program.

If California goes free, the economics for education publishing companies will radically shift. Also, it is then likely that Florida and Texas and many other states will follow California’s lead in sourcing free educational content. Most immediately, California’s migration toward the provision of free textbooks has been driven by the state’s precarious financial situation. An effective moratorium on new textbook purchases is expected to last until 2014—see KABC-TV video.

California’s approach may seem either drastic or innovative, depending on your perspective, but the state is actually following a movement toward free textbooks that has been gaining steam over the past several years, with Georgia Tech among the leaders.

How California is going “free”

That said, California appears to be the first state to specifically identify free electronic texts that may be used in the classroom.

image In May, Governor Schwarzenegger established a "Free Digital Textbook Initiative" to review free digital high school textbooks to determine which met the state’s established academic standards. State education officials asked content developers to submit content. Then the California Learning Resource Network (CLRN) facilitated the review of the submitted content.

Most of the free textbooks scored highly. The results were not an official endorsement by the state, but even as a “dry-run” or experiment, this effort is likely to both encourage other suppliers of free content and local decision makers to consider adopting free content as part of their curriculum. Which is the intention.

First stage: Math and science 

In this first step, the initiative asked for textbooks in math and science, and nine suppliers submitted 16 titles. The publishers were both individual educators and publishers, but Pearson was the only “traditional” publisher that chose to submit content. Embarrassingly, Pearson scored one of the lowest scores against the “content standards met” criteria. (Why Pearson was there at all is perhaps a more interesting discussion point.) The full report is here.

In addition to the direction from the state level to evaluate digital content, other agencies have also joined in to support this initiative. Notable among these has been the California Educational Technology Professionals Association (CETPA), which recently organized a seminar showing participants how to blend digital content into high school curriculum. The textbook content reviewed by CLRN will be available in classrooms in the fall.

The Governor’s office made the following announcement:

Since these digital books are downloadable and may be projected on a screen, viewed on a computer, printed chapter by chapter, or bound for use in the classroom, schools can take advantage of these free, standards-aligned resources using existing hardware—even in classrooms without computers or laptops for every student.

To showcase the multiple ways in which digital textbooks can be used, the California Educational Technology Professionals Association (CETPA) today hosted 200 educators, technology professionals and content providers for a digital textbook symposium at the Orange County Department of Education. Teachers led students through lesson plans using digital textbooks in four mock classrooms, demonstrating the materials’ interactive potential. CETPA also moderated panel discussions about the future of digital education and potential next steps in this innovative effort.

Secretary of Education Glen Thomas spoke at the symposium and added, “I applaud the Governor for his leadership and vision in launching this groundbreaking initiative. This represents an important first step toward ubiquitous instruction that will help ensure all California students have access to the first-rate education they deserve.”

As this program develops, it will be interesting to see how the concept of a textbook begins to shift.

One of the criteria listed in the “parameters” for review of the digital content is that the material must be “stable for two years”—no changes allowed. For some subjects, this parameter should be no problem, but as the state evaluates social science and some other (dynamic) subjects, this parameter will begin to look quaint and limiting in what advantages digital content—free or paid—is able to deliver over print formats.

In turn, as the parameters change, so will the process of vetting and approving titles for use in high schools.

This initiative, viewed skeptically when it was announced earlier this year, has not only delivered tangible results to California educators but also represents a significant strategic issue for all traditional publishers as they navigate their digital frontier.

(Time stamp changed from earlier today to be closer to the top of the blog.)