Troglodyte Textbooks for Digital Natives

Why do US schools miss an apparent “No Brainer”?

For anyone who actively uses digital media to explore their world, it seems obvious that schools need to move away from the traditional “dead trees” textbook format, and begin using digital textbooks.

The advantages are many.


Inkling from Bulent Keles on Vimeo.

The digital option offers an interface that:

  • Can open from the main text to a variety of detailed supplementary information.
  • Is capable of being lavishly illustrated with zoom-enabled photos, video or audio clips, and interactive maps, charts, and graphs.
  • In the best-designed examples, allows individual users to tag, annotate, bookmark, and/or archive notes and passages.
  • Is near-instantly searchable on a wide variety of variables.
  • Costs a fraction of what a copy of a traditional textbook costs.
  • Weighs only as much as the digital device into which it has been loaded.
  • Requires no special accommodations for storage, beyond digital memory capacity.
  • Will always be a “brand new” copy to each user.
  • Can be updated frequently by authors and publishers, because updates can be done at relatively little expense.

By contrast, traditional textbooks:

  • Offer only a single “static” text with at most a few sidebars.
  • Are limited by practicality to a handful of illustrations, charts, maps, etc. on any given page–none of which can be made interactive.
  • Generally cannot be annotated by individual users without leaving a permanent mark.
  • Can only be searched via laborious visual scan or a (limited) index.
  • Cost a lot of money to buy.
  • Are often heavy and cumbersome, especially for younger children.
  • Take up a lot of storage space, when not in use.
  • Are subject to wear, tear, and vandalism.
  • Are difficult and expensive to update.
Back problems from too-heavy school backpacks reached a peak of awareness around 2005.

South Korean students in Goesan use tablet PCs as textbooks.

“Everybody” (on the blogosphere, anyway) seems to believe it’s the way of the future, the coming  trend. South Korea and Singapore already have begun riding this wave.

But the switch to digital textbooks in the US has been hit-and-miss, emphasis on the “miss.”  Why aren’t more US schools joining this trend?

I think there are several reasons, and most of them stem from the basic institution, which is structured so it must prioritize its own needs above those of students.

Politics is one major dis-incentive, in at least three ways.

Federal, state, and local education budgets have been slashed repeatedly, throughout the last decade. Digital textbooks may be a fraction of the cost of traditional ones, but schools already have storage rooms filled with traditional textbooks. And outfitting an entire school or district with e-readers is not cheap. Many schools just don’t have the money.

A significant and vocal group of voters is old enough to look upon digital devices in schools as an extravagant luxury, and therefore a waste of money. They tend to complain, and they unfortunately are more likely to vote than more moderate thinkers. Thus, their views sometimes dominate school budget battles.

Finally, US school districts have traditionally been governed by the decisions of a local school board. Unlike Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and many other nations with widely-admired educational systems, our schools are not centrally managed by the federal government so that all schools are treated the same. Local control and dependence on local property taxes for a financial base make US schools an uneven patchwork. No Department of Education recommendation can decree that all schools will use e-textbooks. You may see that as a good thing or a bad thing, but it is the way we operate. Districts will (or won’t) adopt digital textbooks individually, as they see fit.

This illustration demonstrates textbook capabilities of iPad tablets.

Another important dis-incentive to using digital textbooks is the confusion and discomfort many educators feel about e-readers. Even those who have mastered web surfing, email, and Facebook may be baffled by the dizzying array of options in the rapidly-expanding e-textbook field.

How should educators evaluate the merits of a Nook (left) or a Kindle (right)?

What kind of digital reader should they use? The wrong choice means a whole lot of money ill-used. But there are arguments both for and against using the iPad, Nook, Kindle, and a whole slew of other devices. Which give good advice? Which are just glorified ads?

Textbooks must offer sound, readable information that is aligned with the school’s curriculum–and most educators understand how to judge a traditional-format textbook. But what makes a good digital one? And if they do find a good digital reader, is it supported by all of the textbooks their school needs?

They may be dog-eared, but most schools have piles of textbooks.

No wonder so many schools are still relying on the laptop cart in the corner of the classroom, and digging their old paper-bound-in-cardboard textbooks out of the library storage room each year! Besides, with all the other things they have to pay attention to, what educator has the time to do a genuinely-rigorous comparative evaluation?

Institutionally, public schools have never had either the funding or the functional incentives to operate at the cutting edge of technology. Unlike businesses, they have faced no compelling need to compete, so they have had to be dragged, late and unwillingly, into the computer age.

Will that history repeat itself for digital textbooks?

PHOTO CREDITS:
The video clip at the opening of this post is from the iPad In Schools blog/website’s “The Future of the Textbook” post. The three views of iPads as textbooks is from the same site’s “Why the iPad Should be Used in Classrooms” post.
The cartoon panel from Lynn Johnston’s For Better or for Worse comic strip came from the Eclipse Wellness website.
The AP photo of the elementary students from Goesan, South Korea is from the Daily Herald (Chicago area, IL) online.
The photo of a textbook on a Nook is from the Barnes & Noble Booksellers website. The image of the Kindle is from the GEV website
Finally, the image of piles of traditional textbooks came from the Beaumont Enterprise (Beaumont, TX) website.
Many thanks to all of these sources!

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
You may also find these articles interesting:
The Schools.com website’s “Digital Learning: Final Chapter for Textbooks?” page.Classroom Aid‘s post, “It’s a Digital World, Why not a Digital Textbook?”
Statistics on the Worldwide Center of Mathematics Blog website, in the post “The state of the Textbook Industry: Facts and Figures,” by Brian L.
The Kindle-adoption experiment at  Clearwater (FL) High School, as described by the Techno Buffalo site.

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    jansgephardt

    Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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