Guest: Douglas Levin, the director of education policy for Cable in the Classroom, and Shelley Pasnik, a senior researcher for the Center for Children and Technology.
Jan. 12, 2006
Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s online chat about the benefits and drawbacks of electronic textbooks. In what ways are digital textbooks more effective learning tools than their print counterparts? Conversely, when is a traditional textbook a better learning tool? And what is the quality of today’s digital textbooks?
Today’s guests--Douglas Levin, the director of education policy for Cable in the Classroom; and Shelley Pasnik, a senior researcher for the Center for Children and Technology--will now address those and other questions.
So let’s get the discussion started.
Question from R. Frangione, Grad Student, Bucknell University:
Digital textbooks sound as if they could have potential in easing costs of education, i.e. by reaching a wider audience. How are texts selected and by whom?
As with traditional print publishing, content selection for digital textbooks involves many people with various levels of expertise: content experts who understand the subject matter, instructional designers who think about the pedagogical implications as well as the fit between content and state and national standards and business folks who consider how to reach the broadest audience. Because the text in a digital book also must appear on a screen – whether that screen is on a handheld device specific to the e-book or on any PC the student has access to at home or in the classroom – there are also people responsible for design. These people think about such things as the length of each text and the links between different chunks of text. As for cost, while electronic tools, like digital textbooks, have the potential to ease costs as you suggest, they can be an expensive undertaking for any school district. Hardware, maintenance, IT support and software upgrades are just a few of the expenses an administrator would have to consider.
Question from Heather Froelich, Editor, SRA/McGraw-Hill:
The research I’ve looked at shows that several obstacles to the use of digital textbooks in K-12 schools still exist: infrastructure problems, a lack of tech support, not enough computers, and outdated equipment. What trends do you see emerging that will help solve these issues?
All that you suggest is true, though it is important to note that there is increasing dissatisfaction with access to print-based textbooks. In fact, it is an enormously expensive and time consuming process for a school district (especially for large districts) to warehouse, distribute, and maintain textbooks that – in some cases – are out of date soon after their publication.
Given federal budget pressures and trends, I am not currently optimistic about increases in federal technology-specific funding that would dramatically improve the situation you describe. States appear to be split on the issue: some are launching laptop/1:1 initiatives, while others appear to be disbanding their state educational technology offices.
Two hopeful trends: technology and media are increasingly being used by students and educators outside of school. This increases the opportunities for out-of-school use of technology for learning. It also may help increase the demand for innovation in instructional materials and tools. The second trend: movements to broaden the legislative definition of textbooks to include digital instructional materials by some states.
Question from Carrie Roach, educator:
How will the families with children living in extreme proverty in our country have equal and reliable access to this teaching instrument?
As you note, equity is a significant challenge when it comes to all information and communications technologies and digital textbooks are no different. Children living in resource-poor communities are unlikely to be attending schools that have the means to provide learning environments rich with technology and those same students rarely have access to digital learning tools at home. That is why it is important to remember that purchasing digital textbooks is about more than hardware and software. Teacher professional development is an essential component as is community education. Practitioners and parents will need opportunities to become familiar with electronic texts and a great deal of support before they know who to support their student’s use of these new tools.
Question from jim stewart, psychologist, Copper Hills High:
What about students who do not have a computer? Currently they go to the library.
A digital textbook, like any resource, has to meet the needs of the students meant to use it. So you are quite right that providing equitable access is certainly a consideration and something you want to keep in mind *before* choosing this option. It may be that the school will have to find alternative locations and forms of access for students to ensure they have access to information when they need it. This may include some combination of the following: a PC in the library with priority use for a particular digital textbook, extended classroom hours perhaps making creative use of teacher prep and starting a peer-support system where students share resources with one another.
Question from Trey Csar, Graduate Student, Kennedy School of Government:
Some schools have been able to drop all of their traditional printed textbooks for solely electronic versions, but this is rare. By what year would you predict schools and districts will be able to choose an electronic version of a textbook from any of their adoptions?
I would agree with you that the exclusive use of electronic textbooks by schools today is exceedingly rare, though use of digital supplemental materials continues to grow.
Depending on how one counts, about 20 states are considered “textbook adoption states” - meaning there is a process determined by the state to determine what textbooks can be used by districts. Texas, Florida, and California (all adoption states) have both reading and math adoptions between 2006 and 2008. This represents the next big opportunity to influence the future of textbooks. Texas, in particular, may be the state to watch closely as they have been actively grappling with this issue.
Question from Warren York, Digital Coach, Indianapolis Public Schools:
Do digital textbooks allow students the option of viewing video and audio clips that relate to the targeted objective?
Digital textbooks take many forms and some deliver audio and video as well as layered text. Because of the richness and variety of these electronic formats, school districts are realizing the importance of professional development. Whether teaching with a proprietary digital textbook purchased through one of the large textbook publishers, like Pearson Education, or taking advantage of free rich media resources on the web, such as those offered at WGBH’s Teachers’ Domain website, practitioners must grapple with shifts in classroom management, pedagogy and the home-school connection.
Question from Gil Narro Garcia, Senior Education Research Analyst, USED:
The speakers might start out by discussing the scientific evidence that supports the format and effectiveness of electronic curricula and on-line instruction, with an emphasis on the cognitive demands that such media require of learners. From an instructional perspective, what do teachers need to know about sequencing curricula, learning feedback strategies, and assessing the effects of curricula in electronic formats? At this point, I suspect that the best approach is to figure out how to integrate electronic curricula rather than prematurely arguing that tradtional book-based instruction is better or worse than...
Thanks to our colleague from the U.S. Department of Education for this question on scientifically-based evidence. Prior to joining Cable in the Classroom, I was a Principal Analyst with the American Institutes for Research where I helped design IES’s ongoing experimental study of the effectiveness of technology in education - among other education technology-related descriptive and evaluative studies.
You raise a few related issues with your question. Let me see if I can quickly address a few of them. From the learner perspective, we know quite a lot about how students read and comprehend text. There are some (predictable) differences in student performance when this text is simply displayed on a screen. Those with more experience using computers and reading digital text may perform better on assessments that allow them to use those tools than via pencil and paper – and vice versa.
However, we know much less about the impact when interactive components (such as hypertext links and adaptive agents) are “added” to that digital text. Researchers, such as Michael Kamil and colleagues at Stanford University, are currently among those doing rigorous studies that shed light on these questions.
In the end, the opportunity to embrace digital content may have to do as much with solving perennial criticisms of textbooks: currency and quality of information, costs, distribution, accessibility, and personalization. Indeed, in seeking out what works, we should be careful not to limit barriers to innovation.
Comment from Joe Rueff, President, Eye2theWorld:
Why are we even talking about ‘textbooks’? Educators should be weaning themselves away from textbooks that imply instruction geared to a whole class rather to individual or small group needs. Let’s make certain resources are used for products and services that can open up the world and the array of knowledge available so that students can do valuable research oriented projects and become excited about what opportunities are afforded to them.
Question from Rose H. Snyder, Duval County Public School:
Mr. Levin, How would you mitigate the difficulties created with online textbook use for students who have a low socioeconomic status and would not have access to a computer and or the Internet at home?
This is a very important question, Rose. A 2002 survey published by the National Education Association (NEA) of their members helps to put this question in context.
This study found that 1 of every 6 teachers who use textbooks in class reported they did not have enough for every student to use in class. Almost 30% of NEA teachers reported that they did not have enough textbooks so that every student could take one home. The situation was worse in urban districts and for other schools serving high proportions of low-SES/minority students.
Increasingly, students of all backgrounds are securing access to the internet and sophisticated devices (like today’s cell phones) in multiple settings: homes, friends’ and family members’ homes, libraries, community centers, etc. In short, the digital divide as it has traditionally been conceived is shrinking.
I would also submit that many schools simply do not have reliable or current data on the availability of internet access by students and families outside of school.
The issue you raise is not trivial, but it is addressable. In fact, if we were to wave a wand and design a system to produce and distribute educational content from scratch, digital instructional content may be better matched to our needs today.
Question from Sam Juarez, teacher, Imes elementary:
Are electronic textbooks getting cheaper?
I do not think that electronic textbooks are likely to result in significant cost savings - unless other (significant) changes are made at the policy level (like the move to a national curriculum or to adopt other efficiencies in the textbook sales process in states).
Most large publishers have already automated as much of the textbook production process as they can. The cost to produce high-quality content is a constant and interactive content development costs extra (e.g., embedded simulations vs. a static photograph/image). Money is saved on the distribution of physical textbooks, but devices and infrastructure are still required to distribute it.
I think that digital content offers up other advantages, but on a textbook-by-textbook basis, I wouldn’t expect cost savings in the near term.
Question from Andres Henriquez, Program Officer, Carnegie Corporation of New York:
Hello Shelley and Doug: We know that students are having a difficult time comprehending the text books that they already have in their classrooms (especially those in middle and high school). Is there any evidence that students using electronic texts are comprehending the materials any better than traditional text? Have electronic text book publishers embedded the necessary comprehension tools to support better comprehension?
This is a very new field and there is little research exploring the effectiveness of electronic texts. With time, scholars will design studies that answer questions such as yours and, if we’re lucky, government agencies and private foundations will provide the necessary support for these studies.
As for the second portion of your question -- comprehension and the ability to respond to textbook users’ responses -- this is where using resources begins to dovetail with assessment. And here, too, it is too early to know what will be possible. Currently, assessment organizations and companies, such as ETS, are working to develop new ways of evaluating what and how students are learning but they have a ways to go before these assessments will be implemented.
Question from Dianne Mckenzie, Teacher Librarian, Hong Kong:
Having just received hundreds of texts through the school text book system, many accompanying CD’s came back broken, unused, or lost - asked if they used the CD’s (instead of lugging all their texts home) the students said no because they did not like reading off the computer screen, they couldn’t make notes as they went with post-its and placed in the books as exam joggers etc, they couldn’t read them on public transport and in some cases the CD’s did not work as the technology they used at home was too advanced for the technology used by the CD.
I see a use for e texts either online or CD-Rom - however if the format is not user friendly then the users won’t be interested in using it. I understand there is new ebook technology just released which is more similar to a paperback (very expensive still) Until this technology comes down in price, how can e books be enhanced to make them more attractive to students?
The drawbacks to using digital textbooks that you mention are all very real. And I agree that any learning tool has to be convenient and effective otherwise students will find alternative ways to accomplish the tasks they are given. Given your role as a librarian, I suggest you work with a group of students to make a list of the characteristics that e-books must have, such as portability and the ability to capture annotations and notes. Until those conditions are met, you may want to hold off on making any large-scale purchases. Instead, if you have the resources, you may want to enlist the help of a small group of students and teachers to run pilot digital textbook programs to see what does and does not work among the delivery formats currently available and keep in mind that others are on their way.
Question from Gary Thompson, Region Manager, Apple:
Why would an educational institution limit the impact of advances in technology to simply replicating a dated paradigm for information exchange, the book, in a new form, the computer?
What does removing the spine from the book mean in an information age?
Indeed - distributing PDF versions of a traditional textbook is not much of an advance and hardly seems worth the effort. The opportunity is to rethink the textbook - in fact, the instructional program - and what we want from it.
We have been limited in our ability to consider educational innovations - at the system and classroom level - by the tools available to us. As Thomas Friedman has noted, the world is flat. Yet, our education system today is decidedly *not* flat. There is much room for those with imagination and energy to pursue alternatives.
Question from Netranand Pradhabn, Head, Dept. of Educational Adminstration, M.S.University of Baroda, India:
What is the target group for whom the electronic books will be helpful?
There isn’t one single target group for digital textbooks. As with any resource you want to find a good fit between the educational goals and the tool. For example, one place digital textbooks might be appealing is with an advanced-level biology course that has built-in updates included in the e-book price. This may help battle obsolescence and keep students on their toes with lab ideas that refresh along with new discoveries and current events.
Question from Georgia Hedrick, sec-treas and resident agent of BYTE ME! EBOOKS inc.:
What do you do with the economics of it all--the large publishing companies that publish hardback texts would fight the change, wouldn’t they?
The business of content publishers across the board is rapidly changing and it is hard to see how educational publishers will not be pushed by their customers to change as well.
Think of how Amazon changed the bookselling business. Apple has revolutionized the music business. Cable revolutionized the television business, and now TiVO and DVRs are revolutionizing it again.
I frankly think it is surprising that educational publishers have been able to resist the pressures to change for as long as they have. It is inconceivable to me that in 10 years the textbook publishing business will very much resemble what it looks like today.
Question from John Shacter, consultant and educator, Kingston, TN:
Isn’t the main textbook problem one of quality and effectiveness -- regardless of whether digital or print?
Absolutely! This is not a problem specific to the digital textbook. Textbooks offer the advantage of providing a closed environment for students, presenting them with finite, pre-digested information. In some instances, the analysis and content selection may be done well and help a teacher meet his or her instructional goals. In other cases, though, a teacher may want students to grapple with primary source materials or consult information from multiple sources and draw their own conclusions.
Question from Jessica Pegis, writer, editor, Toronto, Canada:
I’d like to know how e-texts change literacy requirements for students. Because e-books are more interactive, offer more choices and control for the student, and are “chunked,” does this say anything about where reading should be going as a *skill*? I think we’re in an old paradigm about reading. I’d be interested to know what you think.
You are right to point out that electronic texts and the online environment overall places new cognitive demands on students. Not only must they decode the words, images and sounds that are on the screen before them but they also must make decisions about their meaning relative to other sources of information. As often as it’s been said, it’s true that students are learning in an information glut today.
There are a lot of smart folks working in the area of digital literacy that may be useful to your exploration of this topic -- for example you may want to take a look at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Also, my colleagues and I have developed online activities that get middle school students thinking about how images, sounds and animations are used for different purposes (http://violet.edc.org/CCT/dig_lit/web/), which you also may want to explore.
Question from linda van de zande, PTA community services chair, partnership elementary, raleigh, nc:
To take electronic textbooks a step further, what about electronic notebooks and note taking on the kids’ part? What do you think about each student having his/her own laptop for all work as well as texbooks--at the high school level? at the middle school level?
One-to-one computing is a topic that has been on the lips of many people over the last few years, some believing it is a question of when not if. Several years ago I evaluated a high school handheld project based on this model: each student received a handheld device loaded with software and limited content and each participating classroom had a wireless network that allowed students to go online and work with web-based content not pre-loaded onto their individual devices. Students were able to take notes on their devices, using a separate keyboard, and found the control this gave them to be very appealing. It took most students awhile to acquire the technical skills they needed, however. As you can imagine, there were other advantages (portability, ease-of-use, individualized learning and electronic portfolios tied to a centralized server) as well as barriers (expense, technical glitches, professional development demands, parent concern about replacement costs). If you are considering a similar program I strongly suggest reviewing the evaluations of the district- and state-wide laptop programs that have happened.
Question from Norman Constantine Technology Curriculum Coordinator St Mary’s High School Annapolis MD:
What is the difference between an electronic text book and a learning object?
Would a WikiBook beconsidered an electronic textbook?
What makes a textbook is - curiously enough - defined by law. For instance, Alabama defines textbooks as: “Systematically organized materials, such as hardbound books, soft cover books, or technology based programs, comprehensive enough to cover the primary objectives outlined in the standard course of study for a grade or course.”
Hard to say whether this level of regulation is of benefit to the teaching and learning process and whether those laws don’t need to be updated to reflect new modes of content creation and distribution.
Question from Douglas Roberts, Director of Bus Dev, Wireless Generation:
Should an “electronic textbook” be simply a digital version of the print products, or will schools challenge the industry to leverage technology to create instructional materials that can truly adapt to the individual learning styles of students and needs of teachers? Could electronic instructional materials, potentially delivered on hardware beyond a desktop or laptop computer, unlock a new learning experience for students that is still aligned to state standards, but moves beyond the linear “scope and sequence” structure of basals published by the Big 4 today?
The promise of going from print to digital anything – be it a textbook or image – is that users will experience more than a shift in format. Instead, they will have a fundamentally different experience. And, in the case of education, the hope is that the difference will bring about a much deeper learning experience. Some students today complain that e-books bring an added hassle. Reading long portions of text on a small screen is cumbersome, some say for instance. This is a legitimate concern, especially if it is not off-set by an equally compelling advantage, such as the ability to embed student-generated, searchable links and notes into the text.
The undercurrent of your question, however, is not functionality and the ability to load electronic textbooks with wizzy extras but instructional practice. The next generation of textbooks can be designed to respond to students’ various learning styles and needs but it is foolhardy to think that by themselves they will alter the circumstances within which young people are learning. To accomplish that requires tremendous amounts of teacher training, supportive leadership that understands how to align technology integration with local educational goals and new assessment strategies.
Question from Greg Gutkowski, Founder, just5clicks, Inc.:
What percentage of the current traditional textbooks are available in electronic format as well?
My sense is that the model being perpetuated right now is that digital content is being bundled with most textbooks as an inducement to adopt the textbook. In some cases, it might be an electronic version of that text; in other cases, online services are bundled with the textbook (like for online tutoring).
This points to a chicken and egg dilemma facing the industry. Some in the publishing industry have asserted that textbook publishers feel there is not a sufficient market to produce digital content. Enterprising school districts (like Avoca School District 37 in Wilmette, IL) argue that they have a hard time finding all of the digital content they need and want.
The question is when will all of this tip - and I think the next opportunity is the upcoming statewide adoptions in Texas, California, and Florida.
Those interested in exploring more about the status of digital content in K-12 education should be sure to see the Fall 2005 edition of “Threshold” magazine, produced by Cable in the Classroom in partnership with the Consortium for School Networking. The edition is entitled “Beyond the Textbook: Learning in a Digital World,” and it includes articles on many of the topics being raised today. See: http://www.ciconline.org/AboutCIC/Publications/Archives/threshold_fall05.htm
Question from Virginia Rebar, Asst. Supt, Gardiner,ME:
Will students be able to cut and paste and do all of the manipulations we can now to create cited materials?
In general, working in a digital environment makes it easier to produce citations. However, using digital textbooks does raise new copyright issues. For instance, in some cases you can only download the contents of a digital textbook onto a single computer, which means a student could not access the information from multiple locations. I suggest having a group of people from your district, from the technology coordinator to the instructional support person, thoroughly check out a demo of any book you are considering using.
Question from Mary Ellen Lepionka, Publisher, Atlantic Path Publishing:
How must textbook authoring and publishing change to accommodate the new model?
How adequately will the new model address the issues of supplements and pricing?
Because digital textbooks are a relatively new field the publishing model is in flux right and probably will be for the next few years. One need only consider the shake-up that Google has caused making full-text books available online to know what a moving target this is for publishers. As a result, until a successful business model emerges, there are likely to be multiple approaches to supplements and pricining. For example, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune last November, digital versions of college-level texts cost about 30 percent less than the hardcover but that figure does not incude updates with the release of subsequent editions. Also, it’s too soon to know where publishers will generate revenue: through state and district sales, sales into the home and/or sponsored content?
Question from David Reese, teadcher/coordinator, Franklin County Schools:
We are a start-up public high school that will eventually serve less than 400 kids. Next year we’ll open with 80-100 freshmen. This could be the perfect time to jump into digital textbooks. Considering our circumstances--what do you think?
I understand your enthusiasm for wanting to arm your students with the best resources available but without knowing more about your learning goals and environment it’s hard for me to offer a specific response. So instead, let me suggest a few questions that may help clarify your decision-making process:
Aside from the size of your small high school, what advantages do you anticipate with digital textbooks that you wouldn’t have with other print and online resources? What is the experience among your teaching staff with technology resources and what plans do you have to support technology integration into instructional practice? In what subject areas do you envision a need for digital resources and how quickly is the pace of this discipline? With the digital textbooks you are considering are there infrastructure requirements that may hinder you in the future? For example, will they work best in a traditional lab setting rather than several smaller mobile labs? Who has a stake in using these digital textbooks and how are they involved in the decision to select them?
Question from JJ Ross, Ed.D. education policy analyst, retired:
What implications do you see for digital texts to affect our general acceptance and uncritical reliance of digital sources? Do you think there are risks worth concern, that students who accept digital books as authoritative sources may become even less “critical” of digital media and less able to discriminate effectively as citizens and future parents themselves?
Media literacy is an essential skill whether a student is deciphering information found online or in a print publication. Although flashy websites and well-designed digital text layouts seem to lend themselves to greater validity, students must learn that high production value is unrelated to a source’s legitimacy. Instead, they must learn, as you point out, to be critical consumers of all information sources. For instance, they must learn to ask where the information comes from, what information was omitted, what stake the provider of the information has in making it available and what alternative interpretations or analyses exist based on the same information.
Question from John Doe, Major publisher:
Do you see many schools or districts supplanting print texts with electronic, or primarily using electronic to supplement print?
In my experience -- and this certainly is not based on a scientific poll -- the majority of school districts are using print textbooks, including printed novels and stories, and encourage students to conduct research using individual websites. Very few are using digital textbooks.
Question from Peggie Hamilton, The College Preparatory School:
What are the ergonomic issues with electronic screens and mice vs print?
These really depend on the location and size of the screen and mice as well as the general physical learning environment. Although something like a novel may seem easier to read than its electronic counterpart each student has different habits and preferences. While one student may be more comfortable holding a lightweight paperback in his hands another might prefer to enlarge the font on a screen to minimize her eye strain. Ideally, a classroom would offer multiple ways of delivering the same information, allowing students to select the option that is best for them.
Question from Jan Wiezorek, student, North Park University, Chicago:
What’s the best way for student teachers to learn about using electronic textbooks?
Because the research literature is thin at this stage, I encourage you to consult your broader learning community. Is there a class at your school of education that focuses on technology integration that you can take? If so, is there an online component that captured teachers’ past experiences using digital textbooks? If not, is there an online or conventional bulletin board where you can start a discussion or see what similar interests those around you have? Is there an upcoming teacher conference that you could attend using available PD resources? Have you searched the web for people who have had first-hand experiences they would be willing to share? And, if you want to see what it’s like to use electronic textbooks yourself, have you contacted a publisher letting them know you are a student teacher sho would be willing to participate in a pilot program and help them refine what does and does not work?
Question from Chris Burghardt, Product Development, Franklin Electronic Publishers:
1. What platform (e.g. Laptops, PDA’s, eReaders) will emerge as the primary solution for e-texbook usage?
2. What solutions are educators looking for from publishers and the electronics industry?
Educators are looking for a platform that is reliable, easy-to-use, and cost efficient. Period. Much of the conversation on the publishing side of the equation has to do with the best device (or, at the least, the device that will allow them to best maintain control over their content - digital rights management).
Like with the adoption of consumer entertainment media, this is a rapidly evolving target. Many are offering up their vision: from MIT’s $100 laptop to Project Inkwell to Apple (with their iPod) to vTech and LeapFrog to cellphone manufacturers. Even TI has done a wonderful job in developing their graphing calculator platform. I am reluctant to even hazard a guess...
Question from Michael May , English Teacher, Briggs High School, Norwalk, CT Public Schools:
Given that both the tradional and electronic textbook involve kinesthetics-turning a page or keyboarding-which has been found to be more effective for the reluctant high school reader?
I am not aware of any study that looks specifically at high school literacy and the kinesthetic aspects of traditional books vs. e-books. My suspicion, however, is that different modalities are going to appeal to different students, depending on their past experiences and other variables unrelated to keyboarding and page-turning. Learning to read can be an intimidating proposition for many older students. Because they may be comfortable with certain technologies, such as websites trading in popular culture or video games, the possibility of reading an electronic text may be appealing. On the other hand, the technology may add one more layer of intimidation if it is foreign to them.
Question from Carrie Gibson, Director of Textbooks for Gibbs Smith, Publisher:
In your experience,have you found that digital texts are more useful for certain age groups? I am inclined to think that older students are able to process digital texts better than students that are just learning to read. But, my presumption may in fact be incorrect.
In fact, there is much promise in using digital text - with built in instructional supports - for early readers. Certainly publishers like LeapFrog, Scholastic, and HeadSprout think so. In fact, that is one of the more exciting advantages of digital content!
Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for this thought-provoking discussion about electronic textbooks. And a special thanks to our guests. This chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be posted shortly on edweek.org.
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