Comments on “In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History”

This past weekend the New York Times published an article called “In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History” by Tamar Lewin.  The article profiles the increasing adoption of digital textbooks by school districts as a way of cutting costs and as a way of updating pedagogical methods in response to technological and social advances.  Lewin reports:

Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions — or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.


In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this summer announced an initiative that would replace some high school science and math texts with free, “open source” digital versions.

With California in dire straits, the governor hopes free textbooks could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Among the article’s interviewees is Neeru Khosla, co-founder of the non-profit group CK-12 Foundation, which develops “flexbooks” that can be adapted to state educational standards.  (Khosla has also been featured on OpenEd and on the Creative Commons blog.) Khosla explains the virtues of the flexbooks:

You can use them online, you can download them onto a disk, you can print them, you can customize them, you can embed video. When people get over the mind-set issue, they’ll see that there’s no reason to pay $100 a pop for a textbook, when you can have the content you want free.

The article uses terms like “digital textbooks,” “free courseware,” “open source,” and “open-content,” but what exactly do these terms mean? While there is reference to the adaptability and customization digital texts, the article does not explicitly mention copyright.  While digital delivery of educational materials may solve some of the cost barriers of education, without an explicit understanding of terms like “open” and “free,” legal and social barriers remain.  As far as I am concerned, government-funded “digital textbooks” or “free courseware” should be as free as possible from copyright restrictions (licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution license, the least restrictive of CC licenses) or in the public domain.  Only then will they be truly available for sharing, collaboration and reuse.  The fact that they are simply “digital” or “available on the Internet” alone is not enough.

The road to a digital future for education is not without its bumps.  Lewin brings up the issue of a the digital divide: “Not every student has access to a computer, a Kindle electronic reader device or a smartphone, and few districts are wealthy enough to provide them. So digital textbooks could widen the gap between rich and poor.”

The increasing adoption of digital textbooks may save on some costs, but will also require additional investment in computer hardware.  But the real issue at stake is not just the economic costs of education, but instead the need to focus on increasing the accessibility of knowledge.  In order for learning resources to be truly accessible, the issue is not just online vs. offline, digital vs. print.  To reach their maximum social and educational potential, learning materials in the digital future  will need to free from excessive copyright constraints (with clear open licensing like CC-BY or public domain declaration) in order to allow teachers and students the maximum freedom to legally share, modify, and improve upon them.

Also check out Jane Park of ccLearn’s post from last September: “Back to School: Open Textbooks Gaining in Popularity.”

Creative Commons Internship Midsummer Presentations


The Creative Commons summer interns gave their midsummer presentations to the CC staff yesterday.  Creative Commons CEO Joi Ito was in town, so he sat in on our presentations and gave feedback.  I talked about my main project for the summer: coming up with an internationalization strategy for ccLearn’s OpenEd project.

The OpenEd site (currently in beta) is:

for anyone interested in open education, from Open Ed experts to those new to the field…

This site should help you arrive at a variety of information, whether you are looking for an organization contact, a particular report, guidance on how to license your educational work, or information on where/when a particular conference is being held. However, please keep in mind that thought we host some of these resources (such as event data), most of the information on this site is linked to other sites. Rather than duplicate efforts, we choose to drive traffic to the many excellent, existing resources out there. The goal is for everyone to contribute by adding information and links to sites we have not yet discovered.

OpenEd is a point of departure for people to understand some of the issues and aspirations related to open education, and we expect it to drive interest in creating new forms of media and outreach to help more people understand open education, CC licenses, and hopes for the future.

In related news, the CC interns have been participating in periodic lunch talks with interns from other tech-related non-profits in the area.  Previously, we have “done the Google” and also gone down to Stanford to hear a presentation by Ryan Calo, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society.  Today, we are headed to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) for a talk by Seth Schoen called “Information Security Discovers Physics.”

Grad School

I’m going back to school!

I have been accepted into the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU). I will be starting the two-year Masters of Professional Studies (MPS) program in September 2008. According to their website, ITP is:

A graduate department dedicated to creativity and critical thinking applied to new technologies…More than just a graduate school, ITP is a creative ecosystem – a living and interdependent flow of people, projects, ideas and applications all dedicated to exploring and expanding the ability of real people to use media to connect to one another and influence the world around them.

I learned about the program from my former Avaaz colleagues Ji Mi Choi, who worked at ITP, and Paul and Milena Berry of Talacon Social Software who are ITP alumni.

While I concentrated in Government (Harvard-speak for majoring in political science) in undergrad, I have always wanted to go to art school as well. ITP deals with the intersection between technology, art and society, so I think it is the perfect fit for me. I hope to build up some technical chops and make some good connections so I can further develop the multimedia production, technological consulting services and music production wings of my company, Hepnova Multimedia. Continue reading Grad School

Avaaz Video Featured on YouTube Front Page This Week


I was part of the creative team of the Clash video, and worked on the localization/subtitling of the non-English versions. After our video was featured on YouTube earlier this week, the number of view counts has shot up dramatically. The video is stirring up quite a buzz online!


This was shot using my MacBook’s built-in webcam at’s New York office.