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Stuck-in-the-Past Va. Physics Texts Getting Online Jolt

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2008

The average high school physics class in Virginia traverses 2,000 years of thinking, encompassing the Archimedes principle of buoyancy and Newton's laws of motion, and stopping abruptly at about the turn of the 20th century. Educators want the course to advance to today's string theorists and atom-smashing particle physicists.

But before they can modernize physics education, they need a breakthrough in a textbook system that often leaves courses in physics and other subjects decades behind the times.

Rather than waiting two years for the Virginia Board of Education to review its science standards, then another year for publishers to print new physics texts, the state secretaries of education and technology asked a dozen teachers to write their own chapters in biophysics, nanotechnology and other emerging fields and post them online.

By February, physics teachers from Vienna to Tappahanock should be able to rip, mash and burn new chapters in real-time physics, said Secretary of Technology Aneesh P. Chopra. The virtual pages, which cost the state and schools nothing except teacher time, will be an optional, free supplement to hardbound books.

Although technology has transformed how research is conducted and news and music are used, digital inroads into the $8 billion-a-year textbook industry have been relatively slow. Seventh-graders still haul around usually half their weight in glossy primers.

Educators say the need for change is galactic. Textbooks are often breathtakingly expensive, overly general, unchallenging or outdated as soon as they appear. Real-time updates can speed discoveries into science or engineering classes. They also can fold recent tide-turning events into history or government classes.

Virginia's experiment with the "flexbook," one of the first state-sponsored efforts to digitize course content with teachers, offers a glimpse at how the Internet could alter the curriculum.

The state is partnering with CK-12, a nonprofit organization in Silicon Valley that offers "next-generation textbooks" in physics, math, and biology online. The nonprofit also offers software to help school systems develop their own content. In the District, an experiment with flexbooks is underway at Jefferson Junior High School.

Connexions, an organization at Rice University, offers more than 7,000 free modules, or online chapters, in scores of subjects from pre-kindergarten through higher education. Its Web site draws about 1 million visitors a month.

Electronic texts are multiplying in universities. Professors have more freedom to choose course materials and are not regulated by state standards. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology posts almost all its course materials online. A California Institute of Technology professor wrote an introductory economics text and posted it for free on the Web rather than printing and selling it for the going rate of $150 or more.

Major publishers are also putting more content online, at lower prices than print editions. Drew Crum, an industry analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, said the digital share of the higher-education text market is between 5 and 10 percent and growing.

Virginia's effort to update its science curriculum caught hold after a panel of physicists was convened in 2007 to review state standards. The group found the standards lacking in modern-day applications and research, although the review did not reflect what is taught in honors and advanced courses.


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