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.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
In South Korea, all textbooks will be e-books by 2015.

As a grade-schooler, one thing I loved about the first day of school was getting our textbooks.

Along with the thick, substantial tomes, Mrs. Moon doled out stern warnings about losing or abusing our textbooks. I would flip through them immediately, as if they were the latest fashion magazine, previewing what we would be studying that school year, lingering on pretty pictures or interesting graphics. At home, my dad would help us cut brown-paper grocery bags to cover our book jackets, and once the text was snugly encased in its protective coat, out came the markers and stickers.

In fifth and sixth grade it was little sketches, in seventh it was intricate doodles that would take months to complete. In eighth, I remember sitting in French class with my friend Isabella (her French name) and covering our book jackets with tiny-lettered snippets of songs and poems. As for reading, I remember sitting at the kitchen table for hours, absorbed in the many pages we were required to read for history. And later, for research papers, I would blanket the desk with books opened to various pages, consulting each for a particular passage as I tapped away on the word processor.

Now, schools across the country (and the world, as we discussed in this earlier post) want to do away with dead-tree textbooks and replace them with digital editions. In Massachusetts, a private high school has already removed all books from its library. Students there now read from computers and Kindles instead. In Florida, the state legislature passed a bill mandating the state's schools to replace all paper textbooks with digital editions by 2016. At a conference last year in Austin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry argued that printed textbooks should be abolished. "I don't see any reason in the world why we need to have textbooks in Texas in the next four years," he said. And in Augusta, Maine, some schools are planning to give iPads out - to kindergartners.

Hold on a second, cautions Nicholas Carr in an article titled “Schools, beware the e-book bandwagon,” in the Dallas Morning News.

Finally, a voice of reason.

“In theory, the benefits of electronic textbooks seem clear and compelling,” Mr. Carr writes. “They can be updated quickly with new information. They promise cost savings, at least over the long haul. They reduce paper and photocopier use. And they're lightweight, freeing students from the torso-straining load of book-filled backpacks.

“But schools may want to pause before jumping on the e-book bandwagon.”

I wonder, like Carr, whether schools have done their research before jumping on the bandwagon. How do digital textbooks affect attentiveness and focus? Can they accommodate students with a variety of learning styles? Are they flexible enough for flipping quickly through widely separated sections, for dipping in and out to get necessary information, for all styles of note-taking and margin-notating?

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.”

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.

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