As any parent of a Utah secondary-school student knows, "free" public education is far from free, despite a constitutional mandate to the contrary. There are fees and extra costs for everything from athletics to music to science.
And one of the biggest and constantly rising costs paid by taxpayers is for materials and supplies, especially textbooks.
So the Utah State Office of Education deserves to be commended for its forward-thinking initiative to provide free online textbooks. Although book publishers will squawk, the switch to online texts developed by the state office will mean a huge savings for Utahns, whether or not they have children in school.
The "open" textbooks, which can be easily updated, edited and expanded, will offer features that a hard-copy textbook can't. Students will be able to interact, pose questions and do research with the online versions. The books can be developed to meet Utah's academic standard; hard-copy textbooks are written for use nationwide.
If schools decided to print the textbooks, copies would cost about $5 each, compared with the $80 cost of an average high school science book. If they use just online versions, student backpacks will suddenly become a lot less heavy and awkward, a not-insubstantial benefit.
The decision to move ahead with open online textbooks came after two years of pilot programs conducted by the Brigham Young University-Public School Partnership in cooperation with the state office. Researchers from the BYU David O. McKay School of Education studied the potential financial savings for school districts and the effects on learning.
They found a huge savings is possible, and there were no differences in learning outcomes, though teachers had no additional training in how best to use online books. They said open textbooks will probably boost learning once teachers are trained and have more experience using them.
David Wiley, the lead researcher for the pilot, suggested the state use money saved by using the open textbooks, which will become widely available in the coming two years, to buy computer tablets or netbooks for schoolchildren and pursue a more interactive, personalized digital curriculum. That is a great idea, especially because with Utah's rock-bottom per-pupil funding, it's unlikely the state would otherwise have the money to offer such a leap into 21st century digital education.
Everyone talks about "innovation in education," but, with online textbooks, the state office is doing something about it.