I read a headline in our local paper today noting that a neighboring district was about to spend $40,000 on textbooks, largely to support an updated history curriculum. $40,000!!! This for a district not all that much larger than ours. The most painful part of this figure is that history books, more than any other textbooks, are outdated the minute they are published. Current economic downturns, impacts of the 2008 elections, the "War on Terror," climate change...All of these fundamentally affect our world, yet can only be captured superficially.
Regardless, to spend $40,000 on books that could easily be made available electronically (online, on DVD, etc.) for a fraction of the cost is ridiculous. I could buy 750 Eee's at full retail and still have $10,000 left for some sort of licensing scheme to pay publishers for content. This content could be dynamic, as well, or at least linked to a variety of resources, and then accessed through the Eee's. This is one area where 1:1 makes a whole lot of sense, since books and texts across the curriculum could be issued in electronic formats. "Freshmen backpacks" would be a thing of the past and students could also have a functional computing/Internet device to boot.
The real barrier here, though, seems to be textbook publishers. Moving to a new model could eat into profits created by planned obsolescence and wear and tear on paper books. However, I can't imagine a district that wouldn't buy into fairly generous licensing for digital content and value-added services, such as linked databases or ongoing content updates. It's not hard to see that schools would save money and provide better resources for students, even with technology investments to back them up. The smart publishing companies (like Pearson, for example) could leverage vertical markets and tie content to student information systems, proprietary databases, etc.
Of course, this says nothing of the environmental impact of the paper used to publish textbooks. We're not just saving trees, but reducing the carbon footprint associated with logging, transport, processing, publishing, and distribution of millions of books. The hardware tools are here, web applications are incredibly mature, and students live their lives online. This needs to happen now, and not just in progressive California school districts. Talk back below if you've had success with paperless initiatives and electronic textbooks in your district. Also, please let us know about caveats for such implementations. Are there hardware limitations? Bandwidth issues? Other problems we may not consider? Let us know.