Everybody seems to be in love with digital textbooks. Except students.
I visited a bunch of college campuses last fall, and whenever I had the opportunity I asked students whether they preferred paper textbooks or e-textbooks. Without fail, the vast majority said they preferred print. It wasn’t unanimous, but it wasn’t all that far from unanimous. As I’ve reported here previously, this anecdotal evidence is backed up by some formal studies (here and here, for instance), which show that many students, including those who have used e-textbooks, prefer print. There are, to be fair, other studies that suggest that students prefer e-books in some situations — like this study of fourth graders, sponsored by an educational technology outfit — but looking through the literature would have to give even the most eager technophile pause. The studies that indicate a student preference for print aren’t just reporting kneejerk reactions, either; students lay out practical reasons why a printed book is better than an electronic one for some common modes of research and study.
I don’t take any of this to mean that e-textbooks won’t play an important role in schools. It seems pretty obvious that there are some areas of instruction and study that are ideally suited to e-textbooks and other digital media, particularly educational media that combine text, video, sound, and personalized exercises in thoughtful ways. But it also seems clear that there are areas of instruction and study that are better suited to the unique characteristics of printed textbooks, both their flexibility in research and classroom settings and the kind of attentiveness to text that they tend to inspire.
And yet, from the top of the educational establishment and on down through school boards and even among many parents, we see this seemingly overwhelming desire to junk printed books and go all-electronic — and to do it as fast as humanly possible. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared last year that he wants all primary and secondary schools to get rid of all their printed textbooks within five years. “Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete,” he said in October. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is throwing his weight behind the effort, too. “We all win if the players in the digital learning ecosystem,” he declared last year, “work together to accelerate the adoption of digital textbooks.”
Now you might think that before launching such a fundamental and far-reaching project, which will require significant upfront investments even if it may eventually lead to lower annual textbook costs, the government would have lots of hard, compelling evidence of the pedagogical benefits of e-textbooks over paper ones. But you’d be wrong. The bureaucrats point to some broad studies of how “digital environments” improve some educational outcomes in some subjects, but they have not sponsored or cited, so far as I’ve been able to find, a single, rigorous textbook vs. e-textbook study to support the wholesale banishment of paper textbooks from schools. (If I’ve missed something, please let me know in the comments.) What’s particularly curious is the fact that, as Genachowski and many other “players in the digital learning ecosystem” admit, the ideal, multimedia, new-generation e-textbook that everyone’s talking about remains in its early formative stages. It’s more a concept than a product. We’re rushing, in other words, to replace the traditional textbook with something that doesn’t really exist yet.
Clearly, there’s something going on here that is not entirely rational. I’m something of a technologist determinist. I believe that technology is an important force — though certainly not the only force — that shapes our personal behavior and the structure and practices of society as a whole. Though it’s debatable how much influence we have over technological progress, we do, I think, have an obligation to think critically about the way technology shapes us and, when we feel it in our best interest, try to exert a counterforce, try to shape technology to our benefit. What we see in the e-textbook enthusiasm is the opposite: people setting their critical functions aside in order to become, in effect, enablers of blind technological determinism. The new technology must be better than the old technology! If the new technology wins, we all win! This is a view built on faith, not reason.
Maybe we should pause. Maybe we should talk to more students and more teachers and more librarians, and actually listen carefully to what they have to say. Maybe we should do some more research. Maybe we should do some careful, long-term tests of these new e-textbooks before legislating their hegemony. We may find that the old and the new both have their advantages, that e-textbooks and print textbooks both have important roles to play.
UPDATE (1/28): Here’s a related article by Jennifer Howard, “For Many Students, Print Is Still King,” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Photo by Liz West.