Category Archives: e-textbooks

Students to e-textbooks: no thanks


Because the horse is not dead, I feel I’m allowed to keep beating it. So: Another study of student attitudes toward paper and electronic textbooks has appeared, and like earlier ones — see here, here, here, for example — it reveals that our so-called digital natives prefer print. The new study, by four researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto, appears in the Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education. “Although advocates of digitized information believe that millennial students would embrace the paperless in-person or online classroom, this is not proving to be the case,” they write, as studies to date find “most students reiterating their preference for paper textbooks.”

They point out that a lot of the research up to now has started “with the assumption that the innovation [in e-textbooks] is an improvement over previous technology”:

Undergraduate students are generally assumed to be skilled in using digital resources for acquiring the knowledge necessary to achieve success in tests and exams. However, researchers often overlook students’ personal beliefs about how they learn and study most effectively. Their resistance to replacing paper textbooks with e-textbooks together with an ongoing desire to be able to print electronic content suggests that paper-based information serves students’ needs better in the educational context.

To explore the reasons for the continuing resistance to digital books, they surveyed and conducted focus groups with current students who have used both e-books and printed books in classes. They found students believe “that the paper textbook remains the superior technology for studying and achieving academic success.”  Print’s primary advantage is that it presents “fewer distractions,” the students said: “The paper textbook helps them to avoid the distractions of being on the computer or the Internet, the temptations associated with checking e-mail, Facebook, or surfing the Web for unrelated information.” A second benefit is that printed works  encourage deeper study: “Students believe they learn more using the paper textbook versus the e- textbook in part because they are able to study longer with less physical and mental fatigue.”

Students also felt that highlighting and otherwise marking passages can be done more effectively with printed pages than digital ones. Here’s a simple but telling example: “electronic sticky notes, in particular, do not provide the same memory assistance as the paper sticky note. Students feel that they have to remember to purposely search for the electronic sticky note, in contrast to the easily observable paper sticky note.” Students also liked that “they have more choices for when and where they can access” a print book’s content compared with an e-book’s. Finally, the researchers found that “students consider learning and studying to be a personal activity and therefore the decision about which tools to use for learning and studying is unaffected by the opinions of friends.”

The scholars conclude:

This study demonstrates that two factors underpin students’ intention to resist giving up paper textbooks: Facilitates Study Processes and Permanence. The paper textbook is perceived as a critical tool in facilitating students’ learning and study processes. The fluid and dynamic nature of digital content compared to the more consistent and predictable nature of information on paper appears to be a barrier to the acquisition of knowledge for the purpose of assessment. Students perceive paper textbooks as the best format for extended reading and studying and for locating information. Students believe that they learn more when studying from paper textbooks. Moreover, paper textbooks allow students to manage content in whatever way they wish to study the material. …

Students’ reaction to the relative impermanence of electronic content is to continue to resist giving up the paper textbooks. Paper textbooks permit students to have unlimited access to information at any time during a course as well as after the course ends. Moreover, these students have come of age during a time where large organizations increasingly control the students’ access to online content. In the case of paper textbooks, content is controlled by the student and not by publishers or IT developers who continuously make changes to computer hardware or software in order to restrict access to the content.

What’s most revealing about this study is that, like earlier research, it suggests that students’ preference for printed textbooks reflects the real pedagogical advantages they experience in using the format: fewer distractions, deeper engagement, better comprehension and retention, and greater flexibility to accommodating idiosyncratic study habits. Electronic textbooks will certainly get better, and will certainly have advantages of their own, but they won’t replicate the particular advantages inherent to the tangible form of the printed book.

Photo from Univers beeldbank.

Textbook determinism


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.

Overselling educational software

Tomorrow’s New York Times carries the second installment in the paper’s series “Grading the Digital School.” Like the first installment, this one finds little solid evidence that popular, expensive computer-aided instruction programs actually benefit students. The focus of the new article, written by Trip Gabriel and Matt Richtel, is Cognitive Tutor, a widely esteemed and much coveted software program for teaching math in high schools. The software was developed by Carnegie Learning, a company founded by Carnegie Mellon professors and now owned by Apollo Group, the same company that owns the University of Phoenix.

Carnegie Learning promotes its software as producing “revolutionary results.” It is widely used, and has been applauded by respected thinkers like the Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, who in an article published by the Atlantic two weeks ago used Carnegie Learning as the poster child for the power of software-based education:

Carnegie Learning is the creation of computer and cognitive scientists from Carnegie Mellon University. Their math tutorials draw from cutting-edge research about the way students learn and what motivates them to succeed academically. These scientists have created adaptive computer tutorials that meet students at their individual level of understanding and help them advance via the kinds of exercises they personally find most engaging and effective. The personalization and sophistication is hard for even an expert human tutor to match. It is a powerful, affordable adjunct to classroom instruction, as manifest by Carnegie Learner’s [sic] user base of more than 600,000 secondary students in over 3,000 schools nationwide.

Sounds terrific. But, as the Times story documents, the evidence for Cognitive Tutor’s benefits is weak. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education analyzed two dozen studies of the software program, and found that it “had no discernible effects” on math test scores for high school students. Another federal study, conducted a year earlier, examined ten leading software programs for teaching math, including Cognitive Tutor, and concluded that they had no “statistically significant effects on test scores.”

Test scores aren’t everything, of course, but it’s fair to say that one of the main reasons cash-strapped schools invest in the computer-aided programs, which can cost three times as much as traditional textbooks, is to boost students’ test scores. And companies like Carnegie Learning use the promise of improved test scores as a prime marketing pitch, sometimes backing it up with cherry-picked case studies or skewed research reports. Certainly, computer-aided instruction programs have a place in schools, but it’s increasingly clear that the benefits of the software have been oversold, and the faith that many educators place in the programs is often unwarranted. As Gabriel and Richtel report: “School officials, confronted with a morass of complicated and sometimes conflicting research, often buy products based on personal impressions, marketing hype or faith in technology for its own sake.”

Back in the early days of the personal computer, the late Steve Jobs, during his original stint at the helm of Apple Computer, played a major role in promoting the use of computers in education. But in a 1996 Wired interview, conducted after he’d left Apple and before he was rehired, he expressed a very different and much more wary view of the role of computer technology in schools:

I used to think that technology could help education. I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent … Lincoln did not have a Web site at the log cabin where his parents home-schooled him, and he turned out pretty interesting. Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology. Precedent also shows that we can turn out very uninteresting human beings with technology. It’s not as simple as you think when you’re in your 20s – that technology’s going to change the world. In some ways it will, in some ways it won’t.

His view still seems pretty much on the mark.

Another study points to advantages of printed textbooks

Even as administrators and legislators push schools to dump printed books in favor of electronic ones, evidence mounts that paper books have important advantages as tools for learning. Last month, I reported on a study out of the University of Washington which showed that students find printed books more flexible than e-books in supporting a wide range of reading and learning styles. Now comes a major study from the University of California system showing that students continue to prefer printed books to e-books and that many undergraduates complain that they have trouble “learning, retaining, and concentrating” when reading from screens.

The University of California Libraries began a large e-textbook pilot program in 2008. In late 2010, more than 2,500 students and faculty members were surveyed to assess the results of the program. Overall, 58% of the respondents said they used e-books for their academic work, with the percentage varying from 55% for undergraduates to 57% for faculty to 67% for graduate students. The respondents who used e-books were then asked whether they preferred e-books or printed books for their studies. Overall, 44% said they preferred printed books and 35% said they preferred e-books, with the remainder expressing no preference. The preference for print was strongest among undergraduates, 53% of whom preferred printed books, with only 27% preferring e-books. Graduate students preferred printed books by 45% to 35%, and faculty preferred printed books by 43% to 33%.

The most illuminating part of the survey came when respondents were asked to explain their preferences. The answers suggest that while students prefer e-books when they need to search through a book quickly to find a particular fact or passage, they prefer printed books for deep, attentive reading. “E-books divide my attention,” said one undergraduate. “Paper … keeps me focused and away from distractions that may arise from computer usage,” said another. “I have some difficulty paying careful attention to long passages on my computer,” said another. “Reading on the computer makes it harder for me to understand the information,” said another. Commented a graduate student: “I am a better reader when I have the print copy in front of me.”

Another graduate student, in the social sciences, explained the different strengths of printed books and e-books:

I answered that I prefer print books, generally. However, the better answer would be that print books are better in some situations, while e-books are better in others. Each have their role – e-books are great for assessing the book, relatively quick searches, like encyclopedias or fact checking, checking bibliography for citations, and reading selected chapters or the introduction. If I want to read the entire book, I prefer print. If I want to interact extensively with the text, I would buy the book to mark up with my annotations; if I want to read for background (not as intensively) I will check out a print book from the library if possible. All options have their place. I am in humanities/social sciences, so print is still very much a part of my research life at this point.

Several respondents noted that they often used both electronic and print versions of the same book, “utilizing digital copies of a title for search and discovery tasks, and moving to corresponding paper copies for reading, note taking, text comparison, and deep study.” Two-thirds of undergraduates said it was important to them to have access to print copies of books even when electronic versions were available.

Two years ago, then-California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger dismissed printed textbooks as outdated. “Our kids get their information from the internet, downloaded onto their iPods, and in Twitter feeds to their cell phones,” he said. “Basically, kids are feeling as comfortable with their electronic devices as I was with my pencils and crayons. So why are California’s school students still forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks?” Many school administrators and government bureaucrats make similar assumptions, with little or no evidence to back them up. Maybe if they went out and looked at how students actually read, study, and learn, they’d see that paper books and electronic books are different tools and that the printed page remains superior to the screen in many cases.

Zero tolerance for print

Politicians are usually sticks in the mud, technologywise, but that certainly wasn’t the case down in Tallahassee this week. Florida legislators closed their eyes, clicked their heels, and took a giant leap forward into the Information Age, passing a budget measure that bans printed textbooks from schools starting in the 2015-16 school year. That’s right: four years from now it will be against the law to give a kid a printed book in a Florida school. One lawmaker said the bill was intended to “meet the students where they are in their learning styles,” which means nothing but sounds warm and fuzzy.

I reported last week on a new study indicating that e-textbooks, despite some real advantages, aren’t very good at supporting the variety of “learning styles” that students actually employ in their studies, particularly when compared to printed editions. That research won’t be the last word on the subject, but it does show that we’re still a long way from understanding exactly what’s gained and lost when you shift from printed books to digital ones. Yet, as the moronic Florida bill shows, perception often matters more than reason when it comes to injecting new technologies into schools. E-textbooks are so obviously superior to printed ones – they’re digital, for crying out loud – that waiting for a rigorous evaluation would seem like a pathetic act of Ludditism.

But remember: When print is outlawed only outlaws will have print.

E-textbooks flunk an early test

When it comes to buzzy new computer technologies, schools have long had a tendency to buy first and ask questions later. That seems to be the case once again with e-readers and other tablet-style computers, which many educators, all the way down to the kindergarten level, are lusting after, not least because the gadgets promise to speed the replacement of old-style printed textbooks with newfangled digital ones. In theory, the benefits of e-textbooks seem clear and compelling. They can be updated quickly with new information. They promise cost savings, at least over the long haul. They reduce paper and photocopier use. They can incorporate all manner of digital tools. And they’re lightweight, freeing students from the torso-straining load of book-filled backpacks.

But schools may want to pause before jumping on the e-textbook bandwagon. This morning, at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Vancouver, a team of researchers from the University of Washington, led by doctoral student Alex Thayer, is presenting the results of a year-long study of student reading, and the findings suggest that e-readers may be deeply flawed as replacements for traditional textbooks. Students find the devices cumbersome to use, ill-suited to their study routines, and generally underwhelming. Paper textbooks, it seems, may not be quite as obsolete as they appear.

In the fall of 2009, seven U.S. universities, including the University of Washington, launched pilot programs to evaluate how well Amazon’s Kindle DX, a large-format version of the popular e-reader, fulfills the needs of students. At the University of Washington, 39 graduate students were given Kindles, and their use of the device was monitored through diary entries and interviews. By the end of the school year, nearly two-thirds of the students had abandoned the Kindle or were using it only infrequently. Of those who continued to use it regularly, the researchers write, “some attempted to augment e-readers with paper or computers, others became less diligent about completing their reading tasks, and still others switched to a different and usually less desirable reading technique.”

One of the key themes emerging from the study, as well as from earlier research into reading behavior, is that people in general and students in particular read in a variety of ways. Sometimes they immerse themselves in a text, reading without interruption. Sometimes they skim a text to get a quick sense of the content or the argument. Sometimes they search a text for a particular piece of information or a particular topic. Sometimes they skip back and forth between two or more sections of a text, making comparisons. And sometimes they take notes, make marginal annotations, or highlight passages as they read. Reading is, moreover, a deeply personal, highly idiosyncratic activity, subject to all kinds of individual quirks. Every reader is unique.

Because we’ve come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It’s easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It’s easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper or even a hair plucked from your head (yes, I believe I’ve done that). You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book, using pen or pencil or highlighter or the tip of a burnt match (ditto). You can dog-ear pages or fold them in half or rip them out. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information. And when you just want to read, the tranquility of a printed book provides a natural shield against distraction. Despite being low-tech – or maybe because of it – printed books and other paper documents support all sorts of reading techniques, they make it easy to shift seamlessly between those techniques, and they’re amenable to personal idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

E-books are much more rigid. Refreshing discrete pages of text on a fixed screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flipping through pliant pages of fixed text. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational protocols and routines on the user, allowing certain patterns of use but preventing or hindering others. All sorts of modes of navigation and reading that are easy with printed books become more difficult with electronic books – and even a small degree of added difficulty will quickly frustrate a reader. Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e-book requires the reader to adapt to it.

Some of the problems the University of Washington students had with the Kindle – hard-to-read charts, lack of support for color illustrations, inability to write notes directly on the text – are fairly easy to fix. (Indeed, touchscreen tablets like the iPad, together with apps like Inkling, have already fixed some of them.) But a more fundamental problem for the students was the e-reader’s unsuitability for certain modes of reading and for shifting quickly between different modes. And because that problem is intrinsic to the nature of a screen-based reading device, it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to overcome entirely.

The researchers point out that, in addition to supporting various styles of navigation, a printed book provides many subtle cues about a book’s structure and contents. We make a “cognitive map” of a physical book as we read it:

When we read, we unconsciously note the physical location of information within a text and its spatial relationship to our location in the text as a whole … These mental images and representations do more than just help us recall where ideas are located in a given text. We use cognitive maps to retain and recall textual information more effectively, making them useful tools for students who are reading academic texts to satisfy specific goals.

E-readers “strip away some of these kinesthetic cues,” and that’s another reason why so many students ended up frustrated with the Kindle. When students “have no cognitive maps on which to rely,” the researchers write, “the process of locating information takes longer, they have less mental energy for other tasks, and their ability to maintain their desired levels of productivity suffers.” It’s certainly possible to provide on-screen tools, such as scroll bars and progress meters, that can aid in the creation of cognitive maps for e-books, but it’s unlikely that a digital book will ever provide the rich and intuitive set of physical cues that a printed book offers.

The researchers provide an illuminating case study showing how important cognitive mapping can be:

[One student] used kinesthetic cues such as folded page corners and the tangible weight of the printed book to help him locate content quickly. He told us that “after I’ve spent some time with the physical book, I know … exactly how to open it to the right page. … I kind of visually can see where I am in the book.” His physical experience with the text changed dramatically when he began using his Kindle DX: He lost these kinesthetic cues and spent much more time hunting for information than he had previously done. He stopped using the Kindle DX for his assigned academic readings because he wanted to remain as productive and efficient as he was before he received his Kindle DX.

None of this is to say that e-readers and tablets won’t find a place – an important place, probably – in schools. Students already do a great deal of reading and research on computer screens, after all, and there are many things that digital documents can do that printed pages can’t. What this study does tell us, though, is that it’s naive to assume that e-textbooks are a perfect substitute for printed textbooks. The printed page continues to be a remarkably robust reading tool, offering an array of unique advantages, and it seems to be particularly well suited to textual studies. Traditional textbooks may be heavy, but they’re heavy in a good way.