My letter to Secretary Spellings in the previous post about online multimedia textbooks is the outcome of a conversation that I had with Jim Hirsch, Associate Superintendent for Technology and Academic Services for the Plano (TX) Independent School District, at the TIES conference last December. I'm not the only one thinking on this front. For example, Scott McNealy, Chairman of the Board for Sun Microsystems, said last June that 'technology trumps the textbook.' Similarly, four days ago Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, noted that textbooks as we know them will disappear.

To be honest, the two most visible free online textbook initiatives still have a long way to go. WikiBooks, a project of the Wikimedia Foundation, seems to be having a hard time getting off the ground; most of its content has yet to be created or is in the very earliest stages of development. Curriki, which is sponsored by Sun and has gotten a lot of media attention, so far seems to consist primarily of disparate resources and activities rather than comprehensive, meaningfully-organized textbooks. Both seem to be relying on volunteers' efforts for most of the content. While both initiatives have potential, so far that potential remains unfulfilled. It's early in the game, though. The National Repository of Online Courses (NROC) also is doing some interesting work but appears to be complementing, rather than replacing, print textbooks.

As my letter indicates, I think we need something more intentional and systematic. A strategic investment of monies could go a long way toward creating some pedagogically powerful, wonderfully engaging, online multimedia textbooks that then could be used by anyone in the country (or world). Can you imagine what a rich, interactive, media-saturated textbook a team of expert teachers, professors, and computer / Web programmers could create given a year's time and $800,000 to play with (above and beyond their sabbatical salaries)? Can you imagine how fiscally and educationally empowering it would be for schools to have free and open access to 150 to 200 high-quality online multimedia textbooks created by the top experts in the country?

Clearly this an expensive venture from a raw dollar standpoint, at least to do it well. That said, the $200 million per year figure that I proposed represents less than 4 one-thousandths of the current federal discretionary funds allocated for K-12 education. The federal government clearly has the money to pull this kind of thing off. So might a consortium of states or maybe a large private foundation. As big as the numbers are, the return on this strategic investment would be HUGE.

Textbook publishers probably would oppose this idea. So might others, for a variety of political, educational, and sociological reasons. But Public Education Network CEO Wendy Puriefoy's February 14 statement that "the new federal education budget is full of enthusiasm but lacks powerful ideas and transformative levels of funding" strikes home with me. I think this is a powerful, transformative idea whose time has come and I hope someone besides me will think big and make this happen.