E-textbooks may not be the answer after all
While e-textbooks may be cheaper and easier to carry around, some are beginning to wonder if they're as effective in teaching students to retain information.
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Studies suggest concentration and focus is reduced with e-textbooks. In a 2010 study at the University of Washington, a group of graduate students were given Kindles and their use of the device was monitored through diaries and interviews. “By the end of the school year,” Carr writes, “nearly two-thirds of the students had abandoned the Kindle or were using it only infrequently.”Skip to next paragraph
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In another study Carr cites, 500 undergraduates at the University of California were asked to compare printed books with e-books. Most of these students, raised on laptops and cellphones, said they still preferred reading from pages rather than from screens. Students "commented on the difficulty they have learning, retaining and concentrating" when looking at a computer screen, according to the study report. One student said, "E-books divide my attention." (No wonder, when e-mail, Facebook, and Angry Birds are just a click away.)
Students also read in different ways - reading long passages without interruption, skimming, jumping across wide sections, dipping in and out, skipping back and forth and making comparisons, scribbling equations, highlighting, or making all sorts of unique notations. It’s the rare e-textbook that can accommodate each of these habits with ease.
Dead-tree books? In light of all the cool gizmos hitting the shelves (and yes, they are still pretty cool), we take them for granted now. But it is precisely because we take them for granted that we overlook their enormous flexibility, says Carr.
E-books, he writes, are much more rigid. “Refreshing text on a screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flipping through pages. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational conventions on the user, allowing certain kinds of reading but preventing or hindering others...Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e-book requires the reader to adapt to it.”
This is not to say digital books can’t play an important role in education. Much of the work and research students do now is online and e-texts would support that. E-books are better for the environment, accommodate updated editions easily, and are certainly easier on kids’ backs.
But it’s too early to throw in the towel on traditional print books. Nostalgia aside, print books are remarkably flexible, adaptive tools that promote focus and accommodate a variety of learning styles. They’re also cheap (consider how much abuse the average fifth-grader inflicts on his books and school supplies). And as far as I can tell, you just can’t jacket an e-reader in a brown paper bag and decorate with your favorite lyrics.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.