Teaching ‘Wired’ Kids and the Digital Textbook Debate

Digital textbooks have been a hot topic this back-to school season.

The new books, also referred to as “e-textbooks” (available for viewing on a desktop/laptop, or via proprietary reader like the Kindle), promise to bring cost efficiencies and educational benefits to school systems but the new technology has caused quite a stir among academia.  Adding fuel to the debate, digital publisher CourseSmart recently released an iPhone application that allows students to read their library of textbooks on the go.  However, the jury is still out on whether digital textbooks are an educational boon or a prime example of building technology because we can, not because we should.

Examining the growing influence of digital technologies on education is no short order. In classic academia style, the topic of digital textbooks has provoked intense discussion amongst educators- as both sides man the trenches in the classic battle of tradition vs. progression.

Two articles on the topic recently surfaced on Mashable and the New York Times, each providing contrarian perspectives on the phenomenon and implication of digital textbooks. Here are some excerpts and key points from each:

From “Digital Textbooks: 3 Reasons Students Arent’ Ready” (Mashable)

  1. Cost Savings Must Be Greater- “cost savings for electronic textbooks are minuscule” (assuming the electronic version is automatically deleted)
  2. A Standard Format Is Needed- Kindle vs. Sony reader vs. CourseSmart and lack of compatibility will surely cause inefficiencies
  3. Questions of Ownership- automatic (and, in one example, remote) deleting of e-textbooks from Kindle readers; user notes can be potentially damaged or erased

From “In A Digital Future, Textbooks Are History” (New York Times):

  1. “Kids are…digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose, and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite.” (taken from Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer, Calcasieu Parish school system)
  2. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this summer announced an initiative that would replace some high school science and math texts with free, “open source” digital versions
  3. “In five years, I think the majority of students will be using digital textbooks,” said William M. Habermehl, superintendent of Orange County schools. “They can be better than traditional textbooks.” Schools that do not make the switch, Mr. Habermehl said, could lose their constituency

Interesting stuff, isn’t it? Of course, in addition to the scholastic and technological, other factors must be considered to validate the success of digital textbooks, the most apparent being socioeconomic (it remains to be seen whether the eventual adoption of digital textbooks will expand or contract the learning gap between different socioeconomic groups).

Ultimately, to pass judgment on e-textbooks is premature- common ground needs to be established between developers, textbook authors & publishers, educators, and students to develop quality control, best practices, new teaching techniques, etc.  Longitudinal studies will need to assess what effect digital textbooks haveon actual learning.

Compared with other initiatives and platforms that are attempting to modernize the learning process, the odds of the broad adoption of digital textbooks in our education system seem quite high and the potential is great.  With digital textbooks, the possibilities for interactive exercises, social learning opportunities, and cross-referenced learning is certainly tantalizing.  Imagine an English class where the teacher and students can share margin notes with each other or discuss a chapter as they read along at home.  Imagine how the connections between subjects and current events could be brought to life through an active textbook.

Although gradual, once the process is perfected (likely through trial-and-error), the advent of digital textbooks may prove to be the cherry on top for educating the future “post-fact society.”