Online Textbooks: Friend or Foe?

I purchased my first e-textbook for a college course in the fall of 2011. Like every semester, I started out with optimistic thoughts. I believed that by having my e-reader with all of my textbooks loaded on it in my bag at all times, the likelihood of me actually completing my reading assignments would increase. It did for about a week or But by the third week of classes I had become so frustrated with the device, technical problems, and having to squint at the screen that I turned the e-reader off one night and I didn’t turn it back on for another month and a half. That’s right; I went a month and a half without even considering glancing at my textbook.

This isn’t to say that I have always been a student who completes all reading assignments on time. Frankly, I’m the queen of skimming historical textbooks. But, I usually at least had the motivation to skim through my textbooks; after all, they were sitting right in front of me and I had shelled out all that money to use them. But when it came to using an e-textbook, I just had no desire.

Online or e-textbooks are becoming more and more popular and are no longer exclusive only to higher education. In Fairfax County, there has been a huge lean in favor of online textbooks and many surrounding areas are following suit. The county is going entirely BYOD (bring your own device) this year. But what effect does this have on students learning and what can parents do to help facilitate this learning?

Truthfully, the research done on this topic is limited. Just even finding any credible sources is difficult. When you type the word “Online Textbook Statistics” into Google you will literally get pages and pages of statistic textbooks before you get anywhere near a research-based study. Regardless, there are a few things that we know through research about the pros and cons of online textbook.

Pros of Online Textbooks

• According to the US Department of Education and studies conducted by the National Training and Simulation Association, students who are using e-books on tablets are likely to find the learning objective of any chapter, lesson, or unit 30-80% faster.

• Eighty-one percent of teachers surveyed by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) believed that technology enriches classroom education. An additional 77% found technology to increase student motivation to learn.

• Proponents of technology in the classroom have always cited the cost and convenience factor of online textbooks. In fact, e-textbooks on tablets cost on average 50-60% less than print textbooks according to a 2012 report from the Federal Communications Commission. School districts which began implementing e-textbooks experienced an annual savings of between $250 and $1,000 per student.

• Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a textbook publisher, recently conducted a study in which they gave some students in California’s Riverside Unified School Districts iPads and electronic Algebra I textbooks. Students who were given the e-textbook on average scored 20% higher than their counterparts who learned from traditional textbooks on standardized tests.

Cons of Online Textbooks

• Student concentration is likely to decrease while distraction is likely to increase when using a tablet in the classroom. In the same PBS study quoted above, 87% of K-12 teachers stated that they believe, “today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with a short attention span. Of students surveyed in a different study, 82% stated that they multitask consistently when using digital media even for school. Meaning that 82% of students who may be using an online textbook likely have Facebook or Youtube opened in another tab.

• Opponents of digital textbooks argue that accessibility is the biggest issue with digital textbooks. Not every student has access to a laptop or iPad. Using the BYOD system, some students may be forced to read their textbooks on their phones. Some school districts sought to solve this problem by providing every student with a device. These school districts found that implementation costs for e-textbooks on iPad tablets are 552% higher than new print textbooks.

• While earlier I wrote that students tend to reach the learning target quicker using online textbooks, they are also much more likely to forget it than those who use traditional textbooks. The brain interprets printed and digital text differently, which causes people to read digital text 20-30% slower than print. Nicholas Carr, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning technology writer stated that studies have shown that reading hyper-linked text may increase the brains “cognitive load,” lowering the ability to process, store, and retain information, or “translate the new material into information.”

As you can see, there isn’t really a clear-cut answer. The research is limited and what is provided is contradictory. One thing is certain, education seems to be going in the path of online textbooks; now we’ll just have to wait and see if the pros outweigh the cons.

Apps That Get Kids to Do Chores and Like Them…Seriously?!?

The other day I was in the middle of my morning routine with coffee in hand and the Wall Street Journal in my lap. As I skimmed through the Personal Journal section, my eyes became fixated on the word “chores”. Ugh…chores! The bane of my existence. But wait, the article was titled “Apps That Help Kids Like Chores”. Wait a second. Did I just see the words “chores” and “like” in one sentence? Now, I know that there are plenty of apps out there to track chores, but it’s completely another thing to get kids to actually enjoy chores.

After I read the article, I found new hope in getting my own kids to take out the trash, change the kitty litter, and put their dirty clothes in the hamper, not underneath their beds. Take look at the following article by Sue Shellengarger from the July 9th edition. See if you can get to the promise land, too. Hopefully we’ll meet each other there.

Click here for the full story.

4 Things that Will Be Old-Fashioned in Education by 2023

Education is a process of evolution. It’s like surgery, as more research and technology is released; the profession is modified completely. Take open heart surgery for example. The concept was taboo 60 years ago; but today, though it’s still a dangerous procedure, it’s one that is offered in hospitals across the nation. The classroom in many respects is just like the OR and somethings that may be taboo today, may be the new normal ten years down the road. So, what are these things and what exactly will they be replacing?

Algebra I as High School Level Math

When I moved to a new school for high school I was shocked to find that I was in the low level math class.  I had been in honors math 8 at my old school. But in that school district no one took Algebra I until ninth grade; in my new school however, it was expected that Algebra 1 enrollmentstudents would take Algebra I (and sometimes even Geometry) in middle school allowing them to take Geometry or Algebra II as ninth graders. Though this once surprised me, it is increasingly becoming the national standard.  In fact, enrollment in middle school Algebra I has sky rocketed since 1990 increasing from 16% to 47%.

Cursive and Handwriting Instruction

Since 2010, 45 states and the District of Colombia have accepted the Common Core State Standards which do not include cursive instruction. With the use of technology in the classroom, some educators feel that cursive is a useless tool. Meanwhile, others feel that failing to instruct students on handwriting and cursive in particular will have long-term effects from reading primary source documents down to giving someone your John Hancock. Either way, cursive seems to be on the way out.

College = “Higher Education”

Out of my four grandparents, only one holds a degree. My maternal grandfather took 12 years to earn his Bachelor’s Degree working a full time job, supporting a family, and putting himself through night school through it all. It’s probably one of his most proud accomplishments. My maternal grandmother chose not to go to college telling me, “School was never her thing”. Both my paternal grandparents couldn’t afford it.  My grandparents are upper middle-class Americans. Yet their view of “higher education” isn’t the same of the middle class American graduating high school today. A new study showed that 30.4 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. While that number may not seem startling, it is the highest it has ever been in the nation’s history jumping 4.8 percent in the last ten years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reflects that 66.2% of the students who graduated or earned their GED in 2012 went on to a two or four year college.

Rote Memorization

In 2008 the shocking statistic was released that 37% of young Americans couldn’t locate their home country on the map. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably rolling your eyes at that statistic (who are these people? Honey Boo Boo and Miss Teen South rote memorizationCarolina?)  But think about it a little more.  In a day where everything – a map, statistic, language, fact, book, song, etc. – is all only a click away, why would you memorize anything? Obviously, not being able to locate that giant land mass known as the United States on a map is concerning, but the emphasis on rote memorization that once existed in the classroom is yesterday’s news.

Education – There’s an App for That

There are well over a million apps available on the app store and the average American has 65 apps installed on their phone. 1 in every 6 people has a Facebook account and on average spends about 405 minutes on the website monthly. Roughly over 25% of Americans are on Twitter and combined send an average of 56 million tweets a day. That’s a lot of information and a lot of people sharing it.
Though technology is gradually leaking into our classrooms, many teachers and parents are still reluctant about the validity of using social media for education purposes. Some parents are worried about security, but a majority of parents are concerned about the amount of time their child spends on social media websites, time that they could be used to study.

But parents and educators shouldn’t hastily dismiss social media as an education tool. With technology developing every day and people creating new social media accounts by the minute, there are some creative and innovative ways that parents, students, and teachers can use social media to benefit education.

Using Facebook to Collaborate and Study mac-daddy of all social media sites. Over one billion people in the world have a Facebook account. A poll conducted in October 2012 found that over 60% of Americans have a Facebook account and that number is continuing to rise. But with features like chat or endless Facebook stalking, it is easy to get sucked into the world of Facebook and forget all about the homework in your backpack.
Since Facebook is one of the biggest communication platforms out there, one of the best ways it can be used is to, get this, communicate. Students should be encouraged to create a class page or a study group on Facebook where they can upload information, share resources, and even ask each other questions.

A creative project for either English or social studies that combines modern social media communication with classic characters from novels or infamous historical figures, is creating mock accounts for the people in question and having students communicate with each other as their character or figure would.

Using Twitter to Communicate with Students

I was observing a classroom educational appsin Annandale, Virginia a few months ago, and I thought it was odd that when I walked in the teacher’s Twitter was in big letters on the white board. Below it was a hash tag for each class he taught. I was used to my teachers and professors giving me their email, but I had never seen a twitter name and/or a hash tag as a means of communication with a teacher. I thought maybe the class was doing some type of project.

What he later explained to me was that it was a way for the students to communicate with him and him to communicate with the students. All students were required to follow him and their parents were encouraged to do the same. He didn’t follow any of them back. He would post reminders about assignments, quizzes, and tests and post repeatedly about any important information such as snow days or field trips. He said that it was the easiest and most universal way to spread the information. It also allowed students to contact him if they had a quick question limited to Twitter’s 140 character limit.

Once he became familiarized with Twitter he began having the students post information with the hashtags he had created for each class. For example, the students were required to bring in a weekly article on the topic they were covering. Rather than printing it out, the student would tweet the link and add the class hash tag for others to review.

Using Skype for Studying and Tutoring

Skype allows for face-to-face conversation regardless of location. Studies have shown that students are able to study on Skype either with their peers or with a tutor, just as effectively as in person. With features such as the shared screen and chat to send links and documents, Skype allows students to study with others no matter where they are.

It’s easy to be hesitant of technology in the classroom. It almost seems too good to be true. But regardless of your feelings toward social media, one thing remains true: it isn’t going anywhere. With Fairfax County implementing a Bring Your Own Device program and private schools throughout Virginia, DC and Maryland hosting 1:1 laptop programs, technology is becoming an important part of our classroom. What you will find, as the picture below suggests (influenced by Bloom’s Taxonomy) is that in education – there really is an app for everything.

My Top Picks: Educational Apps

Technology has become a part of our daily lives, although it can be distracting. There are a number of educational apps out there that allow us to harness the power of technology. Here are some of my favorites broken up by age.

Elementary Apps

Dr. Seuss’s ABCs: This app allows children to highlight specific words, listen to recordings of the word and even record the words themselves and share their recording with others. This app brings Dr. Seuss’s wacky world of literacy to a whole new interactive level!

Amazing Alex: Created by the same team that brought you Angry Birds, Amazing Alex is a fun game-like app that allows students to develop spatial thinking skills and gives them an elementary foundation in physics and geometry. The tasks are designed like puzzles and there is more than one ‘right answer’.

Kids’ Timer: The Kid’s Timer is one of the most practical, not to mention most adorable, apps out there for young children. The app breaks down tasks such as “getting dressed” or “clean room” into intervals and allows children to select the option. The child then has the option to either “beat the timer”, turning the activity into a game, or “count down” and use it as a traditional timer. The best thing of all is that the app is easy to use, and really child friendly all while teaching the basics of time management!

Middle School Apps

Presidents vs. Aliens: Civics can be a tough and dry subject for many students. But Presidents vs. Aliens makes learning about the presidents an intergalactic adventure. Not only is the app full of hundreds of trivia questions on each president, it involves battling against evil aliens.

MyHomework: MyHomework is one of the easiest and most simple apps students can use to help organize all their classes and homework assignments all while remaining organized and always knowing what is coming next. The app allows students to track important assignments, upcoming exams and projects, and even upload important documents. This app is a great alternative for a kid who may be struggling to write everything down in an agenda.

High School Apps

Quizlet: Tests and quizzes can become a weekly occurrence for high school students, which means one thing: lots of studying. What Quizlet masterfully does is to allow students to create a study set or search the existing database for one. Students input the information they’re looking to study and the app generates flash cards, practice quizzes and other study activities for the student to use.

30/30: One of the easiest ways to simplify the homework process for both students and parents is to implement a timer. 30/30 is my favorite timer for middle/high school students. The app allows you to manually input a task, color code it, and select the desired time. The app then counts down with numbers and a visual representation of the time. The tasks can be scheduled back to back so, you can have a set schedule “Do Math: 10 minutes”, “5 minute break”, “Proof read English essay: 20 minutes”, etc.

Technology is everywhere we turn and with more schools implementing the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) program, it is becoming an integral part of most students’ education.

Does Facebook Make You Smarter?

Learning Through Social Media


Five years ago, as a parent, I would have been hard-pressed to advocate a form of social media to improve my children’s intelligence. However, at a conference this past week, psychologist Tracy Alloway explained how her research suggests otherwise- at least in part.

Dr. Alloway has been studying the effects of social media onworking memory—the ability to draw connections between information, to quickly shift from one task to another, and to calmly manage multiple streams of information—for the past decade. Her research has led to the conclusion that Facebook users have higher working memory scores compared to that of Twitter or YouTube users.

Perhaps these differences are attributed to the structural differences of the sites; Facebook is extremely versatile, allowing users to play games, view friends’ photos, and chat all in the same interface, whereas Twitter users “receive an endless stream of information, but it’s also very succinct. You don’t have to process that information. Your attention span is being reduced and you’re not engaging your brain and improving nerve connections,” Dr. Alloway claims.

Dr. Alloway was equally critical of any activity that could be deemed “instant”- whether it was texting or watching a video online. She contrasted these activities to those that could enhance working memory, such as strategy video games or Sudoku. These require more in-depth thinking, more tracking of past actions, and more mapping of future events.

So, has the rise of technology and the internet made our brains lazy? I believe that it has made us more efficient by eliminating the old school method of rote memorization. With the advent of Google and countless other search engines, we truly have the world at our fingertips- easily accessible with just the click of the mouse.

Let me know what you think! Post your comments and thoughts below.

iGeneration Learning: What’s Going on In Our Kids’ Brains?

I was lucky enough to attend two of Dr. Rosen’s sessions at the Learning and the Brain Conference this weekend.   In addition to presenting his own research, he also summarized other recent studies.  Here are the questions, answers, and other tidbits I found interesting:

  • Why are “screens” so appealing to humans? And when it comes to reading, what is the neurological reason our kids prefer to search Google than read a book? Dr. Gary Small of UCLA conducted fascinating research studying students’ fMRIs when they were asked to do two separate things: read a hard copy book and search the internet using Google. He found that kids’ brains almost fully lit up (almost all areas were stimulated) when they used Google, but that only a very small portion was activated when reading a book. The internet produces a hyperactivity of the brain; it makes people more engaged and stimulated.
  • The more friends you have on Facebook, the more gray matter (associated with memory) in your brain. Also, those with a large amount of friends were more likely to have a larger amygdala (part of the brain associated with emotion). Here’s a good visual of brain maturation. Although association doesn’t mean causation, most here at the conference believe there is a causative affect.
  • Children who play violent video games have less activity in their brains that regulate emotion and aggression. The effects can last for a week after last playing a game.
  • Furthermore, people who are addicted to video games have disrupted brain connections in the areas of emotion, decision-making, and attention.

When it comes to attention, a recent study by Rosen looking at the habits of 279 middle, high school, and college students found the following when the students were observed studying for 15 minutes:

  • All groups could only attend to the task for 3-5 minutes before losing focus. They were able to refocus at about 6 minutes, but then were highly distracted between 8-10 minutes. They became highly focused at approximately 14 minutes, probably because they realized they had just a short time left before the time was up.
  • The most interesting finding was that the number of windows the student had open, the more off task they were.
  • Off-task behavior was highly correlated with lower grade point average (GPA). On-task behavior was correlated with higher GPAs.

In a nutshell, Rosen found that the following factors in the study predicted good school performance:

  • How much time the student spent on task.
  • If the student had strategies for studying (more on this in my next post).

And the following factors predicted poor school performance:

  • Switched from task to task often (multi-tasking).
  • High amount of daily media consumption.
  • And most amazingly, whether the student checked Facebook just ONCE during the 15 minutes. This is the factor that was most correlated with lower GPA.

The question isn’t whether technology is good or bad, it’s about how kids can use it wisely. Part of that includes something called “meta-cognition” which is a fancy way of saying “thinking about thinking”. In order for students to regulate their own online habits they must know how they learn and pay attention best. More on the latest on meta-cognition in my next post.


Questions or comments? Please post them below!

Ann Dolin, M.Ed. — President — EC Tutoring


iGeneration Learning: How Technology Rewires Brains and Teaching Strategies

For the last three days, I’ve been attending the Learning and the Brain Conference sponsored by Johns Hopkins University.  Almost one thousand individuals in education-related fields from all over the country have come to Crystal City to learn about the latest brain research from the world’s leading neuroscientists and psychologists.  This year’s conference title, “Web-Connected Minds: How Technology Transforms Brains, Teaching and Attention”, is of tremendous interest to me as an educator and more so as a parent.  I have questions like:

“Are our kids’ brains different because of their attachment to technology?”

“What are the long-term effects of technology on our kids?”

“Is technology causing our kids to have shorter attention spans?”

The bottom line is that neuroscientists have just begun to study the long-term effects of iPads, iPods, texting, Facebook, YouTube, video games and basically anything with a screen.  Through my next few blog postings, I hope to consolidate some of the newest research from this conference.

The first keynote I attended on Friday was given by Larry Rosen, PhD, from California State University.  Here are some of the basic take-aways from his talk:

  • Although our brain only weighs two pounds, it uses 25% of our energy.  It’s a myth that we use only 10% of our brain.
  • Functional MRIs (performing a task during an MRI) have found that thinking about something actually activates more (and different) parts of the brain than hearing, speaking, and seeing.
  • Our kids are thinking all day long…about technology.
  • There are two types of distractors during learning: internal and external.
  • Thinking is an internal distraction.  Kids may be contemplating, “I wonder if anyone “liked” the photo of me water skiing.”  A common internal distractor is Facebook.  In fact, every one out of five page views on the internet is of Facebook.  More on external distractors later.
  • Rosen says our kids are suffering from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  When they don’t have their phone in hand, they are panicked that they’re missing out on something important.  Yet when we take their technology away, it actually creates more anxiety.  When kids are in FOMO mode, they are not fully available for learning.
  • Solution?  Tech breaks.  Allow your child to have his or her phone during homework.  It can be on the table, just turned over (out of sight, out of mind does not apply to this generation when it comes their phones).  Students should work for 15 minutes, and then take a one-minute tech break.  This one-minute break greatly relieves anxiety and kids are better able to focus.
  • There is no such thing as multi-tasking.  The brain actually quickly shifts from one task to another.  When kids are doing many things at once such as texting, looking at Facebook on their laptop, and reading a text book, they are not doing any one thing accurately.
  • When they are working on many things at once, including homework, they prolong the amount of time they must spend on their assignments.
  • This makes sense to us as adults, but studies show kids think they can work just as efficiently in this manner.  A good solution is a tech break.

In addition, Dr. Rosen described characteristics of the iGeneration (born 1990-1999).  They:

  • Are more liberal.
  • Are more idealistic.
  • Are more socially connected.  Their #1 vehicle is Facebook.
  • Think have a strong desire to be entrepreneurs and believe they can succeed.
  • Have a strong work ethic when they can focus.  The problem is that they cannot focus well because of so many distractors inherent in their environment.

More on technology’s impact on focus and attention in my next blog from the Learning and the Brain Conference.


I’d love to hear your comments or questions!  Please post below.

Ann Dolin, M.Ed. — President — EC Tutoring