Two recent developments in California portend a sea-change in the way educational content is created, delivered and paid for.

Textbooks have been part of the education process and informal bodybuilding for centuries. They are the academic starch in every student’s diet. They are also a costly burden on students and K-12 schools. And they are a cash cow for textbook publishers.

The textbook industry has built itself into an inescapable juggernaut by turning countless numbers of trees into hulking volumes that wind up as educational must-haves. It also has adopted a sly strategy of regularly changing its major sellers just enough to force K-12 schools and college students to buy new editions on a regular basis. Many students pay as much as $1,000 per year or more for their cellulose-based tomes.

Enter digital textbooks. Already accounting for as much as 10-11% of the textbook market, digital textbooks are projected to reach 50% market penetration within five years. The reason is both economic and technological: shrinking education funding, ballooning tuitions, rising costs for printing and distribution, increasing use of laptops and tablets for studying.

The future of digital textbooks is guaranteed. Even now, the main reason students say they buy textbooks in print when the same material is available digitally is because they can resell their books and recover some of their investment. Roughly a quarter of students who buy ink-and-paper textbooks say they do so because they want to keep them for future reference – and to flatten photographs.

Breaching the Textbook Fortress

Most of the buzz about digital textbooks centers on the promise of lower cost, easier revision, online delivery and lumbar relief. However, most of the evolving business models for digital content do little to ease the iron grip large publishers have on educational content. Digital textbooks, like their print cousins, are proprietary. Copy protection prevents them from being resold or repurposed. Rented digital textbooks cannot be kept for future reference. And then there is the money. The cost of digital textbooks will remain a considerable load for students as long as the majority of textbook creators, publishers and distributors are for-profit entities.

Enter the California State Legislature. In January, two bills authored by Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) became law. Together, the bills mandate the creation and distribution of 50 core textbooks in digital form to be made available at no cost to students in lower-division courses offered by the University of California, California State University and California Community College systems.

  • SB 1052 provides for the development of digital textbooks and creates the California Open Education Resources Council, made up of faculty members, to develop the list of targeted courses and create and oversee the approval process.
  • SB 1053 creates the California Digital Open Source Library to house the digital open source textbooks and related materials.

The California Open Education Resources Council will solicit bids to produce the textbooks. The first digital volumes are expected to be available for the 2013-2014 school year. For students who still want to work on their biceps, hardcopy versions will be available for $20.

Barbecuing the Cash Cow

While traditional publishers and new educational content ventures have been ramping up the digital textbook market, state governments and educational institutions have been glacially slow to leverage the efficiencies of digital publishing. The technology has been available for years, but educators and lawmakers have generally held to their tradition of leaving the textbook business to the established publishing industry.

The California bills rewrite the equation. The digital textbooks created by the California Open Education Resources Council are not only required to be free for students, they are required to be published under a Creative Commons license. That means colleges and universities in other states will have access to the books. In addition, the digital textbooks will be encoded in a non-proprietary format, such as XML, allowing them to be easily distributed and repurposed.

Of course, due to changing priorities and fickle budgets, government will never bear the entire load for digital textbooks and likely will remain a minor player. Breaking the headlock of the publishing industry will require other sources of underwriting.

Enter crowdfunding. In December, a project that aims to produce and distribute education apps for the California Education and Environment Initiative Curriculum (EEI) reached and exceeded its goal of raising $20,000 from individual donors through Kickstarter, the online crowdfunding site. If the design, coding and distribution process goes as planned, 6th grade students, their teachers and their parents will soon have access to a pair of apps entirely bought and paid for by the digitally literate public-at-large.

The group behind the effort is a social media network called EcoDads. Its effort to adapt the State Board of Education-approved curriculum into flexible, interactive lessons for use in classrooms provides another tantalizing model for producing and distributing educational content. Imagine thousands of digital citizens using the creative power of their wallets to guide education in fertile and affordable new directions.

Shedding Pounds, Shifting Strategies

State-funded, crowd-funded and freely distributed digital textbooks will not obsolete the textbook publishing industry any more than online education will replace physical campuses, but they represent an encouraging glimmer of digital literacy enlightenment that holds the promise of shaking up the market by adding unconventional, non-profit sources to the competitive mix. Though it would be naive to overestimate the commitment of government or underestimate the clout of the publishing industry, the California bills and the EcoDads crowdfunding venture point the way toward new models for creating, accessing and sharing educational content.

The digital writing is on the wall: The print textbook is destined to go the way of the inkwell. Eventually, except in an historical context, the terms text and book will part company. In their place new terms will emerge to describe new forms of educational content as well as yet-to-be-invented methods of distribution and funding. And when that day finally comes, a great weight will have been lifted off the shoulders of students everywhere.

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