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Online Content Is the Future and Is Free

It takes real leadership to move in this direction.

Online content is the future. Textbooks are finite; they have a beginning and an end. Online content is, for all practical purposes, infinite; learners can feed their interests to their hearts' content. Online content is current; textbooks can be years old. Online content is global; students can access content from the BBC, The Times of India, and, with a bit more effort, read the news from France, Sweden or Nigeria. How cool is that? Online content is, for the most part, platform-independent: desktops to smartphones, Apple OS to MeeGo—everyone can see and hear the same content.

Oh, did we forget to mention the price? Free. Though, down the road, that will change; we will pay for content. But the networking costs and the computing devices needed to access the content will be free.

Someone does have to put forth some effort to find that content, and Google's simple, keyword-based interface is growing increasingly more tired by the day. No problem— from the venerable NetTrekker to groundbreaking Wolfram Alpha, finding relevant content is becoming easier.

Some may argue that textbooks provide more than content; they provide instructional materials. That is certainly true, and that element may well still cost something, but nowhere near as much as 30 copies at $50- $75 per copy. Moreover, the open education resources movement is growing daily. Visit Curriki, OERC ommons, or Thinkfinity for super lesson plans.

The Other Shoe Drops

Schools are charged with preparing students for the 21st-century global workplace, and they must teach 21st-century skills such as teamwork, self-directed learning, problem solving, information gathering and analysis. We simply can't teach 21st-century skills and content using 20th-century tools.

But there is no new money for going to one-to-one. These are hard times, and bonds are failing across the land. The money budgeted for textbooks, however, can provide the funds to pay for 21stcentury, one-to-one computing devices. In some states, such as Texas and New Jersey, schools may use textbook funds for technology purchases.

We have argued—and will continue to argue—that the proper 21st-century, oneto- one computer is a mobile learning device (MLD), a lightweight (less than 2 pounds), handheld, low-cost computing device such as netbook, netpad, smartphone or some other such portable device.

But the transition from textbooks to online content is not merely an economic one; it is an emotional one. What could be more entrenched in America's schools than textbooks? All teachers in the classroom today used textbooks when they went to school and took methods courses in college that incorporated textbooks into the instructional techniques. Eliminate textbooks? Unthinkable.

It's All About Leadership

To break with the past requires strong and courageous leadership. The naysayers will be out in force, starting sentences with the phrase: "When I went to school ?" But public schools must move into the 21st century; just as every 21st-century knowledge worker uses a computing device 24/7, every learner must use a computing device 24/7. Please, stop the "buts." See the future on the horizon and move your district into the 21st century—today.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow Learning in Ann Arbor, Mich. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder of GoKnow. In the next installment of this guide, they will address the cost and pedagogical issues that enable essential one-to-one computing.