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.”