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Will Textbooks Go Digital… and Free?

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
March 2010 Issue
January 23, 2010

Will Textbooks Go Digital… and Free?

California schools spend nearly $500 million each year on textbooks, according to state reports. That is up $250 million over the last decade.

As any parent or teacher knows, a significant portion of this expense goes to replacing lost or damaged books. We also have a growing student population. In many schools, there aren’t enough books for complete class sets. Students end up sharing books or working in small groups.

Every few years, the California State Board of Education adopts new standards, known as frameworks, for our public schools ( When standards undergo major revisions, textbooks need to be updated and replaced. The adoption of a new standard is a lengthy and expensive process, with textbook publishers eager to pitch their books to the state for approval. School districts must adopted texts that meet state criteria.

California, Texas, and Florida are huge markets for publishers. Only a handful of publishers can compete in these markets due to the incredible expense of revising texts to new standards.

The California Open Source Textbook Project, COSTP, is hoping to offer a free, or at least low-cost alternative to traditional textbook publishers. COSTP aims to create e-book versions of texts complying with California standards. The project Web site ( explains that open source textbooks can and would still be printed by many districts, while they would also be available for e-book readers, such as the Kindle or Nook.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has championed e-books for schools, asking schools to consider adopting both commercial and open source digital texts by 2012. There are serious challenges to this ambitious plan, including textbook publishers increasing their political donations to state senate and assembly candidates.

One myth being reinforced by the publishing industry is that schools would need e-readers to adopt digital texts. Such devices would require faculty training. Also, if students lose and damage books, they will certainly lose and damage fragile electronic book readers.

The reality is that digital books can be printed on demand, as many digital textbooks are. In fact, I order a customized reader each year for the university courses I teach. The publisher assembles and prints the texts in a matter of days, including the classic short stories and poems I select.

These books are called “POD” (print on demand). I have the choice of ordering acid-free, long-life books that resemble other texts, or I can have books printed on uncoated paper with a “please recycle” logo on the back cover. I admit that most of my students would rather pay $20 for a recyclable book than $80 or more for the traditional edition.

Because standards are revised on a regular basis, why would any school order texts designed to last a century? I am not suggesting libraries buy POD editions, but science and history books are out-of-date in mere months.

My university students can also download electronic editions of the reader for free. Of course, they must own an e-reader or read on a computer screen, but some students do opt for the e-book edition of a text. Since an e-reader is $200, that means the student saves money after downloading a handful of digital texts. The book I use is distributed as an Adobe PDF, meaning it can be read on any computer and most e-readers.

I know three professors who offer their course texts to students in digital form for free. Most students still purchase a physical book, which remains more portable and requires to recharging. But, a handful of students do download the texts, saving a lot of money.

The Minnesota State Colleges use a free textbook for their academic writing courses, classes every student must complete. This book is posted on Wikibooks, where students can download the text as a PDF.

Several Ohio and Texas community colleges are also using the Web to distribute books for free. The College Open Textbook Collaborative and Flat World Knowledge are examples of online services dedicated to free texts. Flat World offers print editions, at a nominal fee.

Teams of teachers write most free textbooks. Why would a teacher do yet more work for free? Because good textbooks make teaching easier. When instructors like me work on a textbook, it is because we know what our students want and need. Publishers might meet standards, but they don’t know my students.

Ohio is starting with community college textbooks, but plans to adopt open source, teacher-created books at the secondary level over the next decade. The goal is to slowly introduce the technology as e-reader hardware becomes more affordable and familiar. Judging by my students, some actually prefer reading a screen to the printed page.

California should be a leader in the move to digital textbooks. How can the technology capital of the world be behind Ohio in digital textbook adoption?

If teachers knew about open source books and were encouraged to use them, I believe California instructors would soon contribute to dozens of book projects. If administrators offered small grants to teachers adopting open source books, grants based on the money saved, teachers would give digital textbooks serious consideration.

I doubt we could cut textbook budgets by more than a third by adopting digital books and POD editions, but that would still represent more than $150 million that could be spent on teachers, support staff, facilities and classroom supplies.

Maybe it won’t happen by 2012, but the digital textbook revolution is coming. It would be nice if our valley were at the forefront of this revolution.

Web Sites with Free Textbooks


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