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Backpacks got a bit lighter for about 5,000 students at the University of Texas (UT) in 2005. Students taking introductory government courses at UT-Austin are using an online textbook called "Texas Politics," so they don't have to lug around the real thing.

The College of Liberal Arts' technology support unit, Instructional Technology Services (LAITS), developed the site. It brings the Web's advantages to a Texas politics course with video and audio clips, and interactive charts and graphs. The site,, saves each student about $60, the cost of a physical textbook, according to LAITS.

The site features video clips of the politically inclined from all walks of life, from elected officials and student interns who've worked at the Capitol to the state chair of the Texas Motorcycle Rights Association.

Made for all-nighters
The online textbook is available to students and to the general public at all times, according to James Henson, a UT government lecturer and executive producer of "Texas Politics."

Henson said the university's proximity to state government and access to the political process and the people involved gives students an advantage.

"We have easy access to both the political process and the people involved on a daily basis," he said. "Coupled with the media and research capabilities at UT, we've been able to put together video and other Web-delivered media that are much more compelling than other commercially available material. Students benefit from the perspective of the actual officeholders, candidates and activists that we interview."

The idea for the site came from the recognition that most of the faculty teaching introductory government courses did not grow up in Texas and did not study Texas politics in graduate school, according to Brian Roberts, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at UT-Austin.

"From our personal experience of and knowledge of others who teach these courses, we knew that this topic was probably under-served," Roberts said. "We felt that we could significantly improve the quality of the instruction and the learning experience of the students--and save them a bundle of money--by creating an online 'Texas Politics' textbook," Roberts said.

There was a working model to go by as well, Roberts said. LAITS developed a similar project for teaching French, called Francais Interactif, that gave the staff the confidence to create "Texas Politics," Roberts said.

"The 'Texas Politics' project is a bit different in that the subject area is very dynamic and requires continual attention to the timeliness of the content, but the basic mechanics of developing and distributing an online textbook were well understood," Roberts said.

Updated and expanded
The university rolled out a nine-chapter version in 2005, Henson said, and plans for an expansion are in the works.

"I'm in the process now of scheduling new interviews for early 2006," Henson said.

The video clips help keep students' attention, said Jeremy M. Teigen, a government professor at Ramapo College in New Jersey, who used the site to teach at UT-Austin. Students also appreciate that it's free and factual, he said.

"Reliable knowledge online is rare," he said. "Regarding student use, the Web could use a lot less of the chaotic and unreliable uselessness of Wikipedia and random Googling, and a lot more informed, well-edited and trustworthy sources such as 'Texas Politics.'"

Greg Mt.Joy