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Q&A with Tony Smith, Superintendent of Oakland Unified, on Digital Textbooks

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Last year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger passed the Digital Textbook Initiative, the first state in the country to offer free digital content online to high school students in the subjects of math and science.

Since that time, only two school districts in California, as far as I can tell, have begun instituting the initiative district-wide: Riverside and Fresno Unified School Districts.

Each district must address its own set of issues to determine whether to participate in the initiative. In the coming months, I'll explore these issues on MindShift from the perspective of school administrators, educators, and students.


My first interview in the series is with Tony Smith, superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, who spoke to me recently about the initiative. This is Part 1 of our conversation. I'll post Part 2 tomorrow.

Q. How is the California Digital Textbook initiative affecting Oakland schools, if at all?

A. For us, it’s still in developmental stages. As it stands, it’s like having a fixed textbook online, which is not really that big of an advancement. You want it to be able to use real-time links. I want to be able to have thoughtful standards-based material that’s all linked together, rather than fixed. They have nice digital features, but it’s still just pages on a screen. It’s still hardware in a software world. It is an innovation, but it’s not transformative.

We want to get to a place where handheld technology is advancing thoughtful exploration. These days, kids are using iPads and iPods to explore, and what they’re seeing is all content-driven. We want kids to use the world of information that’s out there, and for them to find a way in. We have the opportunity to make it much more alive than it is.

Q. Proponents would say that the initiative is just the first step in making it a transformative process.

That’s the publisher saying that, because they don’t have a way to sell the other [interactive] piece yet. They don’t have shareware, the thoughtful interface that becomes the mechanism, or the graphic interface. Publishers have to figure that out, and that’s what we’d pay for. We don’t want to pay for a fixed product. Until it’s a real innovation, don’t make us pay for it. If you have to go sit at a fixed computer and look at a fixed book online, it’s not really that helpful.

Q. But you’d be using funds the state gave you for textbooks.

We do get textbook money. But some of this is speculative still, and for us, we can’t afford to make any mistakes. We’d be asking ourselves, “Did you spend your money well”? You can’t experiment on kids.

Publishers are going slow with their advancement on these digital textbooks. They should be providing content that’s based on the algorithm of what’s being requested, building a database like Orbitz – with probes, seeking out questions. Someone should be managing what’s out there now, and pushing the publishers. Until such time that they imagine their industry differently rather than force us through eye of needle this way, it’s not plausible for us.