Curriculum Opinion

Digital Textbooks: They’re Coming, But Will They Be Better?

By Gilbert T. Sewall — April 05, 2010 7 min read
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Includes updates and/or revisions.

With the much-anticipated arrival of the Apple iPad this month, we are one step closer to the classroom use of portable electronic readers that wirelessly download digital textbooks.

No one knows exactly how long, or even what form, digital learning will take. Fifteen years ago, some educators were convinced that all textbooks would one day be on floppy disks. Yet do students today even know what a floppy disk is? Though K-12 digital textbooks won’t be here soon, unlike in the case of colleges and universities. The ease and popularity of reading on screen is to be seen everywhere, on the bus and in the bedroom. So classroom lessons on “e-readers,” “tablets,” or “smartphones” are sure to join books in schools’ not-too-distant future.

What the shift to electronic readers and e-texts portends needs close inspection, with an eye to the impact on teaching and learning, not dreaming or even optimism.


To get a better sense of where we are in this transition, and where we’re likely to go, we should look first at the publishing industry.

Established educational publishers are nervous, with good reason. Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Scholastic, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the nation’s four major elementary and high school publishers, are financially challenged. Textbooks provide steady revenue streams, and do so in good times and bad—or have in the past. Now, these publishers are making heavy investments to adapt their offerings to new hardware, and are signing contracts with electronic-bookware developers to make the shift. Digitized textbooks promise them savings in printing, sampling, inventory, and distribution.

But the anticipation of such savings ignores stiff front-end development and conversion costs. Publishers are likely to underestimate their editorial expenses and the speed of digitization, especially if they plan to offer the elaborate multimedia ancillaries they promise. Moreover, they face losing business—and control of the medium—if Internet content expands beyond their control. Small online commercial publishers looking for sales, and nonprofit organizations ready to create free open-source lessons, are nipping at their heels. And, having compromised quality and catered to identity groups for decades, established publishers no longer have the allies in government and the schools they once did.

Application of digital learning is incredibly complex, even if all the students in a classroom have the right device and are technically agile."

For now, the elementary and high school publishers have created a lucrative near-monopoly for themselves, and they want to keep it that way. Look for the major publishers to repackage and redo what exists in their computer banks, including abundant online and CD-based supplements. They may try to sell what they once gave away as freebies. And do not expect any “innovation” in the electronic K-12 materials they offer. Only one thing is certain: Publishers, along with the Washington-based Association of American Publishers, will use their collective might to try to keep an iron grip on state and big-district textbook budgets.

Educational publishers got a jolt—and a glimpse of the future—in July, when the California legislature suspended state textbook adoptions and purchases for four years, letting school districts use textbook money for other expenses. Until then, the state was the nation’s single largest textbook funder.

Heavily promoted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, this so-called Digital Textbook Initiative promised savings and more. “How can kids compete in the global economy when the information the schools feed them is stale and is outdated and is old?” Schwarzenegger asked. Digital texts would change all of that, he said, being quickly and easily updated, while also eliminating the need for students to “lug around these antiquated and heavy and expensive textbooks.” Going digital would not only be good for students’ achievement, but also for schools’ bottom lines.

Schwarzenegger claimed that digitized lessons would make learning more exciting. “Exciting” seems the wrong criterion, however. And “heavy” and “expensive,” in reference to current textbooks, are to some degree canards. As for teaching and learning in this new age: What if digitized textbooks just make lessons slicker and faster-paced, not better?

Though state governments and school superintendents nationwide will be watching California with intense interest, the state’s savings argument is a limited one. Textbook costs will not fall to zero, even if high-quality open-source instructional materials become readily available overnight.

There are hardware cost and durability to consider. The California initiative assumes that all children have easy and equal access to electronic hardware at school and home, yet the gap between rich and poor students is vast. Beyond that looms the replacement question: Can 10- or 12-year-olds be expected to be reliable hardware custodians, especially if the devices are school-owned? What happens when they drop the reader on the floor and it breaks?

There are other practical issues. What is the digital equivalent, for example, of “Girls and boys, please open your books to Page 81”? Application of digital learning is incredibly complex, even if all the students in a classroom have the right device and are technically agile. Publishers will face more than development costs. Changeover to digital learning will require an army of trainers and specialists in each subject area.

But digitized textbooks do promise easy, quick revision and correction, not years of waiting for new printed editions. Online materials allow fast add-ons of current affairs and new knowledge. But this assumes that textbook revisions and corrections are a constant necessity. The value of revision varies from subject to subject. Enthusiasm for this digital plus implies that instructional materials are “works in progress” instead of “fixed anchors” of core knowledge that change gradually or not at all. What protocols will assure that educational anchors are not swept away?

Increased competition and open-source instructional material challenge the monopoly market, and could result in alternatives to the glossy mediocrity that flows from established publishers."

On the other hand, digitized textbooks offer teachers and districts the chance to break out of standard lessons and use something better. Increased competition and open-source instructional material challenge the monopoly market, and could result in alternatives to the glossy mediocrity that flows from established publishers.

Are digital textbooks really the cheaper, better learning tools that California state officials have envisioned? Most experts think not. The most high-minded educational software designers admit that electronic formats are not conducive to sustained reading. Oxford University neuroscientist Susan Greenfield suggests that the fast pace of social-networking Web sites, computer games, and television shortens teenage attention spans and inhibits concentration.As Greenfield puts it, new technologies may be “infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.”

Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein warns that concentration and attention span are all-important in reading comprehension, and that reading on screen does the opposite. Books encourage focused reading. Electronic screens promote “scrolling” and “scanning” with superficial attention and sketchy pickup. Online readers of all ages and educations, most reading specialists say, are growing impatient with slow-motion printed narrative, perplexed by solid blocks of text without bullet points, pulled quotes, or “clickability.”

Portable readers and on-screen classroom lessons are on the horizon. But printed textbooks will not disappear tomorrow. Hardbound books still dominate the $7 billion textbook market. Digital textbooks make up less than 5 percent of sales, and that includes textbooks at the college level, where for many reasons e-texts make more sense than in schools.

Even in an electronic age, books remain, when compared with plug-in and battery-operated laptops, cheap, portable, and durable. They are convenient, familiar, and easy to use.

Books make a great deal of sense in the primary grades, and electronic textbooks much more sense in the upper grades and college.

More important than medium, however, is content. Regardless of who the digital winners among publishers are, dumbing-down and trending-up textbooks has been a steady moneymaker over the past 20 years. To attract the widest possible audience, “text light” and “entertaining” have usually carried the day. If new media go in this direction, only more so, the losses to teaching and learning will be catastrophic.

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as Digital Textbooks


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