California's Open Textbook Initiative

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Carolina Rossini, Erhardt Graeff, October 8, 2009:

"On May 6, 2009, as a possible answer for the state budget problems, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a Free Digital Textbook Initiative to encourage the production of 12 level math and science e-Textbooks as a cost-effective alternative to traditional textbooks. The goal was to have these educational materials approved for instruction in Fall 2009. Twenty textbooks were submitted by nine publishers, 3 of whom are OER projects. Specifically: CK-12 Foundation submitted eight textbooks, Curriki submitted two, and Connexions submitted one.

On August 11, 2009, California released a report documenting the results of reviews of each textbook's coverage of the state's content standards, coordinated by the California Learning Resource Network. CK-12 with its focus on state standards for its “Flexbooks” met most content standards with only a few exceptions. However, the reviews did not cover California's “social standards” for textbooks under the state’s adoption process. A note at the bottom of each page of the report explicitly reads: “Materials were not reviewed for alignment to California's social content review standards; inclusion in this report does not constitute endorsement by the State of California.” Two steps forward, one step back.

It appears that these non-mandated free e-Textbooks will be relegated to supplementary resource status for classrooms that have fully-approved, but possibly out-of-date textbooks already on the shelves of their math and science classrooms. It is unclear how this will save money. And the OER movement is careful to distinguish California's initiative—which will distribute copyrighted PDFs—with the open-source and commons-based licensed materials characteristic of OER.

Criticism of Gov. Schwarzenegger's initiative often takes issue with his money saving logic for deficit-laden California. Arguably, digital materials require a personal computer available to every student, an e-Book reader like Amazon's Kindle, or mass printing of each reading assignment by the schools themselves. In a recent NY Times article, Tim Ward, an assistant superintendent in California, says his school district cannot afford any of those options.

Additionally, what Schwarzenegger seems to not have captured is that OER is a reaction to the move of proprietary, analog educational materials management onto the network. OER encourages and enables the open production, sharing of, and access to educational content and resources. This alone is a valuable societal good, increasing the value of investments made in education. But OER creates the opportunity for a more fundamental and transformative change: the move from passive consumption of educational resources to the formal engagement of educators and learners in the creative process of education content development itself. Thus, the core benefits of OER should probably not be conflated with cutting the costs of materials.

Hal Plotkin says he himself deserves some of the blame for the dependency on cost as the key argument. In 1998, when he first started advocating for innovative uses of digital technology in higher education, “cost” was the only demonstrable argument. Only later did he observe how the development of what he originally called “public domain learning materials” was “also about improving the quality of teaching and learning through resource-sharing, collaboration and the more rapid transfer of educational best practices”.

It was this realization that led him to campaign for Trustee position on the Board of Foothill-De Anza Community College District (FDHA) in 2003. During the first year of his trusteeship, he drafted and campaigned again, within FDHA, to enact the first college-wide policy offering institutional support to faculty pursuing development or adoption of OER.

The enactment of that policy in 2004 laid the foundation for his testimony alongside Martha Kanter, Chancellor of FDHA, to the California Assembly Committee on Education entitled “Creating 21st Century Community College Courses: Building Free Public Domain Textbooks for Students”, which in turn influenced Assemblyman Ira Ruskin's Assembly Bill 577 to establish an OER Center at FDHA.

Ironically, Gov. Schwarzenegger and legislators drafted a counter bill that expressly prohibited state funds from being used on OER projects for several years. Plotkin and Kanter lobbied against the bill with the support of Ruskin, and managed to renegotiate the language so that the funding moratorium was reduced to only 2 years and schools like FDHA were permitted to pursue OER adoption with other funding sources. FDHA soon applied for and eventually won a grant from the Hewlett Foundation to establish the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER).

Although the progress has not followed a straight path, California—in the same way it leads the U.S. on environment policies—so too seems to be a site for early innovation on OER adoption. Fortunately, OER's political incubation period appears to have been shortened with the election of President Obama—headhunting the leading minds in all policy areas. He recently recruited two of the aforementioned architects of OER adoption policy in California to the U.S. Department of Education, Kanter as Under Secretary, and Plotkin as a Senior Advisor." (