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.