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TribBlog: A Conversation With the State Schools Chief

Rather than deliver curriculum by book or even CD — one product per student — “We’re going to buy content and get a statewide license and deliver it to anyone who wants it” over the web, says Robert Scott. Much of that content will come from “smaller content providers who have been shut out of the market.”

Any time now, digital curriculum will "explode" into the now-stogdy, near-monopolistic state textbook market, says state schools chief Robert Scott.

And the resulting flack might sear a few wounds into the hide of traditional textbook makers and the State Board of Education, which has heretofore held sway over textbook contracts.

The Texas Education Agency, newly empowered by recent legislation, will aggressively push digital curriculum content to school districts statewide, Scott told me in a sit-down interview this afternoon.

Scott dropped by the Tribune’s offices unannounced this afternoon after reading today’s piece on sweeping changes in laws governing state purchases of electronic textbooks, and indulged us in a wide-ranging chat. New legislation empowers him to compile his own his of approved curriculum materials, separate from the elected state board. Scott was visibly excited to employ the new powers, and laid out his broad intentions to transform Texas curriculum.

 “It’s going to explode, online courses and open-source materials,” he said. “I can’t say exactly when yet, but it’s just a matter of how I get it, provide it to schools and organize it … We’re definitely at a tipping point.” 

The changes stem from two recently passed bills, one high-profile and controversial — HB 4294, which opens up the state textbook fund to computer hardware purchases, among other changes — and the other hardly noticed, HB 2488, authored by Rep. Hochberg, D-Houston, which allows the state to buy and manage open-source materials. Ironically, the latter is the one Scott is more excited about. 

“I kept watching during the session and wondering why nobody was jumping on it. I asked Hochberg, ‘How are you doing this?’” he said. “I almost wanted to say, ‘Hey, the real bill is over here.’”

Rather than deliver curriculum by book or even CD — one product per student — “We’re going to buy content and get a statewide license and deliver it to anyone who wants it” over the web, Scott said. Much of that content will come from “smaller content providers who have been shut out of the market.”

In a separate pilot project, Scott plans to create sophisticated web portals in a smattering of districts, on the model of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, except with appropriate security on a closed teacher-and-student-only network. This would allow continuous conversations to flower between students on academic topics, both at home and school, he said. Schools could also deliver immediate instructions in an emergency or, for instance, continue virtual teaching if a school shut down for fear of swine flu infections.

Also high on Scott’s list is amassing free content in the public domain: “Why would we ever pay for Shakespeare?” he said.

“Think about it: The Federalist Papers” are free, too, he said, gesturing excitedly. “The Federalist Papers! Who wouldn’t want to read the Federalist Papers!”

Indeed. And here’s a salacious little taste, from Scott's favorite, Federalist Paper Ten:

“AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice."

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