by Cathryn Creno)
Brandi Giles is taking a class called Earth and Space Sciences at Skyline High School in Mesa this year. But unlike students who took the class previously, she is not lugging a heavy textbook back and forth to school.
Instead, the 17-year-old junior reads a PDF-format textbook on a computer in her classroom or on her smartphone at home.
"It makes studying so much easier," said Giles, who also prints out passages from the book and adds them to a notebook for later study.
Teacher Shane Bycott says the biggest advantage to the online textbook is that it was created by Mesa Public Schools teachers last summer with current information about Earth and space sciences. Unlike many traditional textbooks, it has no outdated information, he said.
Mesa's online books, Earth & Space Science and Biology, are part of a new educational trend called "open textbooks."
Bycott was part of a team of Mesa teachers whose members earned stipends last summer to develop the books. Both books launched at the start of this school year, and about 2,000 Mesa school students are using them.
"In the past, I would have handed a student a book that cost $50 or more and told them, 'Don't write in it,' " Bycott said. "Now, we can print out parts of the book and students can really interface with them. It's similar to college, where students buy a used book that they can mark up."
Educators who create open textbooks say it costs about $5 to print a 300-page open book on a photocopy machine. Textbooks purchased from publishing companies typically range from $50 to $100 each. Mesa has not yet calculated how much it is saving by using online books, but officials say that over time, they expect savings to be substantial.
Pages of the books are also easy to project onto a classroom Smart Board during lectures, Bycott said.
Mesa's open textbooks were written and edited by teachers who used free materials from an education organization called the CK-12 Foundation. The 7-year-old California non-profit specializes in math- and science-textbook information and other classroom materials that meet most states' academic standards.
"Earth & Space Science is a living document," Bycott said. "I don't think it is at its best. We will get together again and work on it some more."
Wickenburg Unified School District educators were among the first in the region to start experimenting with CK-12 materials a little more than two years ago. After seeing Wickenburg Unified's success, Mesa schools followed suit.
Use of online books is so new that the districts have not been able to determine whether they boost test scores or help students in other ways. But advocate Sybil Francis, executive director of the Center for the Future of Arizona, says the books are a step toward customized learning for students, which should lead to improvement in test performance.
"It's not just about going digital," she said. "It's a piece of a much bigger puzzle about how do we personalize learning for every student."
Francis encouraged Wickenburg school officials to send representatives to Utah in 2011 to train with national open-textbooks expert David Wiley. Later, the district's teachers joined staffers from the Dysart Unified, Peoria Unified and Glendale Union High School districts to develop open high-school math and science textbooks for the 2012-13 school year.
Wiley, chief academic officer of Lumen Learning, a company that assists educators with open textbooks and a scholar in residence at the University of Utah, said his goal is to help schools create books that fit their curricula at a fraction of the cost of traditional textbooks.
"Open textbooks increase local control," Wiley said. "Teachers can have books that are exactly aligned with what they are teaching."
Open-textbook advocates say online books help districts that are adopting new textbooks and classroom lessons under the new Arizona College and Career Ready Standards.
Critics fear that the standards, which took effect at the start of this school year and are based on the national Common Core State Standards Initiative, will result in less local control of books and lessons.
But educators who have created open textbooks say the process eliminates that issue. They start with materials provided by organizations like CK-12, then add, subtract and edit information until they have a textbook that fits the goals set by local school officials.
Not all school officials, however, are enthusiastic about having teachers develop open textbooks. Officials at the Scottsdale Unified School District have avoided open textbooks because of the time teachers would have to spend developing them.
Teresa Foulger, an associate professor and education-technology expert at Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, says open textbooks are worth teachers' time and effort.
"They are bypassing the textbook companies and putting the power back into the hands of teachers," she said.
Wickenburg Superintendent Howard Carlson said having the customized textbooks is a plus at Wickenburg High School, where all 500 students are enrolled in a program called Move On When Ready. The program encourages students to take accelerated courses and graduate when they qualify for a performance-based high-school diploma called the Grand Canyon Diploma.
Carlson also noted that many school districts in Arizona, including his own, have been short of funds to buy new textbooks in recent years because of the state's fiscal woes.
"In many cases, commercially purchased textbooks are not replaced more often than every 12 years," he said.
Wickenburg High School biology teacher Jennifer Appleby spent six weeks on the team of teachers that created the district's biology book last summer.
"I am really happy about how the book turned out," she said. "Everything becomes easier for a teacher when they are allowed to develop their own materials."
This year, Appleby's students are using printed versions of the open biology textbook because of a classroom computer shortage. Also, many students in the largely rural district do not have home Internet access and would not be able to view their textbooks after school hours.
But Appleby said her students also appear to like having printed copies of the book and the fact that they can make notes and highlight passages in them.
"A lot of students need that tactile sensation — they like writing in their books," she said. "When I ask them to turn in their homework, a lot of them just write the answers in their books and hand that in."
Carlson and Mesa Superintendent Michael Cowan both envision a day when all of their students will use interactive, instead of PDF-based, textbooks on laptops or tablet computers. They would like their students to have textbooks that allow them to click on vocabulary words and learn definitions and view animated graphics and videos that summarize lessons.
But officials are making no predictions for when that might happen, even though many students say they can't wait for interactive textbooks to materialize.
Dylan Healey is a 14-year-old Wickenburg High freshman who has been going to science-education websites on his own since he was in elementary school.
While he likes taking notes in his printed biology book, he says he would prefer an online interactive textbook. Why not have an interactive textbook that allows students to perform virtual dissections of animals, he wonders. "And I'd like a class that has online games," he said.
View open textbooks
Go to mpsaz.org/ssrc/science/secondary/oer for links to Mesa Public Schools' online biology and Earth-and-space-sciences textbooks