There’s a lot less dust and grime in today’s Wild West, but enough unknowns to compete in any new frontier.

Case in point: A new electronic book project started by the Nebraska Department of Education with the goal of offering free instructional content to teachers across the state.

The NeBook Project is a partnership of schools and state and nonprofit agencies to create electronic books and share them through the Education Department.

The project might be new, but the idea isn't.

School districts across the nation are wrestling with how to harness digital content. Textbook industries are scrambling to market their products electronically. And Gov. Dave Heineman last week announced a virtual library for students and educators with resources from sites ranging from PBS to the National Archives.

The e-books will be another tool, and authors can use materials in the state’s virtual library, Education Commissioner Roger Breed said.

The project is the brainchild of Brent Gaswick, the Education Department’s technology integration specialist. He said the state must move forward.

“As a virtual initiative, this is a cat out of the bag, and we’re behind in the game, as are other states,” he said.

Gaswick had been talking with social studies educators about ways to create free content for teachers when Apple gave him the perfect vehicle.

The computer giant offers a free app called iBook Author, which allows anyone with a Macintosh computer to create interactive books using photos, audio and video. The finished project must be viewed on the iPad.

The state will offer the books as PDF computer files as well, though that format is less interactive. The education department has software that can add audio and video to the PDF.

One of the nice features, Gaswick said, is that once the books are downloaded onto devices, readers won’t need the Internet to access them.

Districts such as Lincoln Public Schools are looking into mobile technology, though only a few of the state’s 249 districts have embarked on initiatives to provide each student with a device.

The books can be loaded on iTunes -- where they would be available to anyone. But the department will act as a clearinghouse and will monitor content.

That raised questions from board members.

Member Bob Evnen said the possibilities are incredible, but he wondered how the department could maintain control of the content. 

"This is a quantum leap in terms of publishing in the broadest sense," he said. "A cautionary note: This takes us back to the Wild West."

Breed acknowledged the department didn’t have the staff to review all the books, but Gaswick, who gave a presentation at last week's board meeting, said he hopes to have educators help review them.

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Users also can assess the quality, though Gaswick said books that become a part of the department’s project will have to meet some basic quality standards.

The project is intended to increase materials for teachers in tight budget times.

One of the priorities will be social studies content that can be used by fourth-grade teachers, who teach Nebraska history, Gaswick said. The e-books will supplement the little state history available in most textbooks.

Gaswick forsees several uses of NeBooks:

*Students can create electronic books as school projects that would be made available as resources for others. Students in Scottsbluff could research a project on chimney rock, for instance, or Fremont students could research the town’s namesake, John C. Fremont.

*Agencies such as Nebraska Game and Parks and The Nebraska State Historical Society could create electronic books on a variety of subjects. Gaswick showed the board a book created by a park ranger from Homestead National Monument that included scans of original documents, historical photos and video along with the text.

*Graduate and doctoral students eventually could become involved, creating content as part of their studies or helping to review the content created by others.

Despite unanswered questions, Breed said the state needs to jump into the fray.

“The reality is, our kids are sharing this already,” he said. “It is us who need to catch up and harness it for our students.”

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com

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Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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