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The Reading World

Of the Governator and e-books

Pearson’s North America CEO, Peter Cohen, responded to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger’s recent call for a dramatic transition from paper to digital texts, according to Publishers Weekly: “We believe it is important to take these forward steps toward an online delivery system and we are supporting the Governor’s initiative, recognizing there are numerous challenges ahead […]

Pearson’s North America CEO, Peter Cohen, responded to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger’s recent call for a dramatic transition from paper to digital texts, according to Publishers Weekly:

“We believe it is important to take these forward steps toward an online delivery system and we are supporting the Governor’s initiative, recognizing there are numerous challenges ahead for the education community to work through,” including “how we ensure that low income and disadvantaged students receive equal access to technology; how we address the needs of English language learners; and how we protect the intellectual property rights of content and technology creators to support future investment and innovation.”

Schwarzenneger and California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and the state’s Board of Education announced the California Learning Resource Network initiative (an excellent summary by the San Jose Mercury News here), which seeks to transition the state’s $350 million textbook and instructional materials budget to digital sources as quickly as possible. A complex submission and review system is described here (PDF), however it’s not clear that textbook publishers or the schools are prepared to deliver the same or better teaching, as less educational value for the same money is unacceptable, within the short review timeframe for the coming school year.

That’s Pearson’s reply as well. The company is happy to entertain the potential for delivering electronic textbooks, but there are a lot of questions in the path of a business decision that an order from a governor, even California’s awesome mechanical governor, cannot wipe away. Furthermore, there is no conclusive evidence that e-books would be more effective, which Schwarzenneger concludes is proved by kids’ affinity for game consoles, the Web and text messaging.

The biggest stumbling block to the program’s rapid success, I believe, is the labeling of the program as a “free digital textbooks” program. While it is very important to explore and experiment with technology, particularly e-text services and devices, there’s nothing “free” about good teaching materials. Even if the texts are less expensive than paper books, the law requires equal access for all students, which means a substantial subsidy program for low-income students’ reading devices. The state will have to pay a pretty penny for whatever it gets, and in the current budgetary environment it is virtually impossible to acknowledge the real cost of innovation.

A possible bellwether in the California state Senate: An Assembly bill that would allow public notices about local ordinances to be published only online, rather than having to be published in a paper publication within 15 days of passage, was blocked by the Senate Committee on Local Government today. Strong feelings and newspapers lobbying to retain another link to relevance surround this bill, AB 715.

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