Utah is working on free online textbooks
Education • Officials want the materialsto use multimedia, not just words.
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Heavy textbooks weighing down teens' backpacks might soon become a thing of the past in Utah.

The State Office of Education has announced that it will develop open textbooks in math, language arts and science — which will be available online, for free — for junior highs and high schools. Once the textbooks are available, schools and students will be encouraged to use them online for free or print them at a cost of about $5 a book or less for schools, said Sydnee Dickson, teaching and learning director at the state office.

That's a big savings compared to a traditional high school science textbook, which can cost about $80 on average, according to the state office. Also, students would be able to access videos and use interactive features when using the books online.

"Rather than just reading a flat text, kids get to experience learning with multiple media in the book itself," Dickson said.

She said math textbooks could be available as soon as this fall, and other textbooks will likely become available within the next two years. In coming months the state office will invite school districts and charter schools across the state to meetings and trainings about the new, open textbooks.

The decision to create open textbooks for use across the state follows two years of pilot programs led by David Wiley of Brigham Young University's David O. McKay School of Education. The pilots were conducted by the BYU-Public School Partnership in cooperation with the state office and were funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Wiley and other researchers wanted to know whether districts really could save money with open textbooks and what difference, if any, they made to student learning, Wiley said.

Ultimately, they found that the textbooks could be printed and delivered to schools for about $5 or less per book. They also found no difference in student learning with open textbooks compared with traditional ones in classrooms where teachers didn't receive extra training in how to use the open books, he said. But Wiley believes that when teachers do receive training, the open textbooks will improve learning.

Lakeridge Junior High in Orem was one of the schools that participated in the pilot, and teachers who used them were thrilled with the open textbooks, said Rhonda Bromley, Alpine District spokeswoman.

"According to our teachers that have been using them, they don't feel like they would ever want to go back to a regular textbook," Bromley said. "It's interactive with students, where they can go in and edit and add things to it and create things, so it's more collaborative than just a regular textbook."

The Nebo District also participated, and Nedra Call, Nebo curriculum director, said through a district spokesperson that it was "a positive learning experience."

"What the students liked best was the ability to access online resources," Call said.

The findings of Wiley's research will be published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning in the next few months, he said.

Wiley called the state office's decision to develop open texts for statewide use "absolutely the right thing to do."

"I believe we can find a way to use the money saved by purchasing open textbooks to purchase a device like a tablet or netbook computer for each child, which opens the doors to interactive, personalized digital curriculum," Wiley said in an e-mail to The Tribune.

The books will be developed by professors, experts in the subjects, and master teachers. The math and science textbooks will be based on books originally published by the CK-12 Foundation, a California-based nonprofit, according to the state office. They'll be available to anyone.

Dickson said the open textbooks will be based more on Utah's academic standards than traditional textbooks, which are often produced by publishers to fit the needs of the largest states in the country.

"We have really been at the mercy of California and Texas and other large markets and really haven't had a say in how the textbooks are designed," Dickson said. "Now, really for the first time, they're going to be based on Utah standards and things we value in education."

lschencker@sltrib.com