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Guest Thinkers

Online multimedia textbooks: A strategic investment

[send this letter to Secretary Spellings, Director Magner, and Congress]


Honorable Margaret Spellings
United States Department of

400 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20202-7100

Dear Secretary Spellings,

The United States Department of Education currently administers a budget of

approximately $56 billion per year in discretionary monies. I am sending this

letter to encourage the Department to make a relatively small, but extremely

strategic, investment that would pay enormous dividends for our nation’s

elementary and secondary students.

For $200 million per year, the Department could create phenomenal,

mind-blowing online multimedia textbooks that could be used by students all

across the country. Imagine 50 teams, each made up of individuals who took a

paid sabbatical for one year, working to create rigorous, standards-based,

online textbooks that included text, graphics, electronic presentations, audio,

video, simulations, learning games, interactive problem-solving and review

activities, etc. The teams could be comprised as follows:

  • 16 expert teachers * $100,000 each = $1,600,000
  • 4 university professors * $100,000 each = $400,000
  • 8 computer / Web programmers * $100,000 each = $800,000
  • 1 assistive technology expert * $100,000 = $100,000
  • 1 national organization representative * $100,000 = $100,000
  • 1 project manager * $200,000 = $200,000
  • Communication and other software, supplies, travel, etc. =
  • $800,000

    Four teachers plus a professor plus two programmers equals a workgroup; four

    workgroups per team. Each team receives ongoing feedback from a representative

    from an appropriate national organization (e.g., National Council of Teachers of

    Mathematics, National Council for Social Studies), has an assistive technology

    expert to ensure content accessibility by students with disabilities, and has a

    project manager to keep the workgroups moving along. The workgroups create

    content; post that content online as they go along for review, comment, and

    input from others; and, over the course of a year, create several units each

    that add up to a complete, amazing, deep, rich online multimedia textbook.

    Each year would see the completion of 50 textbooks. Over three or four years,

    these Department-sponsored teams would create 150 to 200 textbooks for common,

    key courses (e.g., Algebra I, Physics I, AP English, United States History, 5th

    grade reading) that are present in nearly every school district nationwide.

    Textbook content would be refreshed every three or four years to ensure content

    relevance and usage of the latest digital technologies. If the textbooks were

    wiki-based, much of the content could be revised and updated even before their

    refresh cycle came due.

    Once created, these textbooks then could be hosted by the Department, state

    departments of education, and other entities or could be downloaded for hosting

    on local school district servers. Federal provision of these textbooks would

    free states and school districts to spend funds on laptops, classroom-level

    high-speed wireless connectivity, and other technologies necessary to ensure the

    global competitiveness of our students in the decades to come. All textbook

    material would be free and openly accessible to our nation’s K-12 students and


    I hope that you can see the instructional power of teachers and students

    tapping into expert-created content delivered via the latest interactive,

    engaging digital technologies. Although a few organizations (e.g., Wikibooks or

    Curriki) are attempting to create free online textbooks or learning materials,

    their reliance on volunteers has resulted in relatively little progress. A

    strategic investment by the Department could make an extremely powerful

    contribution to the K-12 educational landscape and would be a powerful lever

    toward ensuring that all students had access to top-quality, engaging learning


    Please consider instituting a national online textbook initiative. I believe

    that this is an idea whose time has come and would welcome the opportunity to

    discuss this further with you.


    Dr. Scott McLeod
    Assistant Professor, Department of Educational

    Policy and Administration
    Director, UCEA Center for the Advanced Study

      Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE)
    Affiliate Faculty, Law

    University of Minnesota


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