Every year italian families must spend hundreds of Euros in textbooks for every child, while the cost limits set by the government are regularly violated in spite of denounces and warnings from consumer associations.

In order to solve this problem, Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini proposed to deduce cost (and weight!) of textbooks by encouraging schools to adopt digital textbooks starting from 2011.

This change, when it will actually happen, will surely lighten the load on the children backs, but not necessarily the one on their parents’ wallets (Adiconsum, a consumer association, said that the savings could be as low as 10%). The reason is that those digital textbooks would still be protected by full copyright, therefore traditional editors may continue to ask whatever price they want for them.

While Italy is merrily waiting the arrival of the “official”, State-approved digital books, the Technical Institute and Scientific Lyceum “Enrico Fermi, a high school in Mantova, Northern Italy, is trying another approach that could be even more effective, explained by Principal Cristina Bonaglia and Professor Mario Cantadori.

Stop: How is your institute dealing with the problems caused by traditional textbooks?

Bonaglia: We are trying to build a digital library, in order to replace those textbooks with courseware produced by us. This is an idea we had for several reasons, but one of the main ones is the need to communicate with the younger generations (the so-called “digital natives”) using their codes and methods to access knowledge.

Stop: Do the students participate in the courseware creation?

Bonaglia Not yet, but we intend to try it and have already made some trials.

Stop: Considering the spirit of the project and all the problems created by the current copyright system, I imagine that you’ll want to use, instead of the classical “all rights reserved” formula, something like the Creative Commons licenses, to make it possible for everybody to download and modify your works for free…

Bonaglia: Exactly!

Stop: How much each family could save, when you’ll have finished?

Bonaglia: The cost of traditional books, minus the printing costs of what they’ll actually need to print. On average, we’re talking of a sum between 300 and 500 Euros per student every year.

Stop: What do the teachers think?

Bonaglia: So far, it looks like they’re really like the project.

Cantadori: Of course, we of the older generations are still a bit worried by the idea of completely replacing paper textbooks with digital ones, but this kind of concerns cannot limit diffusion of knowledge. Apart from that, paper books are very heavy and you must carry them along every day even if you only need some pages!

Stop: Are there any particular regulations, problems or complicated procedures to care about, bureacracy-wise, to carry on a decision like yours? Can you officially adopt without problems home-made textbooks, without an ISBN or a traditional editor to maintain them?

Bonaglia: Right now there’s nothing public or official, it’s just an internal experiment. However, as far as I know there’s nothing that would prevent us from publishing internal material or formally adopting it as official courseware.

Stop: What are your plans and hopes for the future?

Bonaglia: Our long-term objective is to do this at the country level, building a network of schools that produce together, and share, materials for their classes.

Stop’s note to all italian schools

Fermi is a school that isn’t afraid of experiments. In 2009 they hosted a Linux Day (an event that every family should attend]) and developed its own booking software for parent-teacher meetings In 2010 they’ve started a project to build a mini-rocket to be launched in 2011 and are setting up a photovoltaic lab (the school already uses solar energy). On another hand, it’s true that rewriting textbooks can be a complicated, sensitive issue. However, and maybe just for this last reason, the most important part of this whole mini-interview is the invitation to all schools in the principal’s last answer. Fully open, collaborative production by schools of textbooks, or at least exercises and other auxiliary courseware, is a very useful activity anyway, and one that becomes easier and easier every time another school joins the team. Especially when there is so much material already available, just waiting to be translated, and other similar experiments ongoing in Italy. The most urgent and important thing, however, is to find other interested schools and work together with them. That’s why I hope that as many schools as possible (even from outside Italy, why not?) accept the invitation of Fermi high school in Mantova.