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.

14 thoughts on “Textbook determinism

  1. Kirk

    As more anecdotal evidence, my son tried an e-book math textbook the first semester of college and hated it. In my own experience with the Kindle, when I wanted to search a nutrition book (which I had already read through several times), I found myself in two completely situations. In the first one, I searched on a specific phrase, which was mentioned only once in the book, and not one likely to be in any printed index. The search found it immediately. In the second situation, when I was searched on a general concept (such as ‘fasting’), it was a slow crawl through the many page references returned by the search, and I would have much preferred a hardbound version.

  2. Eapen Chacko

    Watching my high schooler reading, there are clear differences in the way she interacts with an electronic page and a printed page. With the electronic page, whether on a reader or on her i-Pod, she rarely blinks and her eyes don’t seem to move. With a printed page, it is possible to see her eyes moving across or up and down. In Nic’s book. he raises an important point about the distractions of reading an electronic document with hyperlinks. I’ve seen this phenomenon at work with my daughter also.

    Some of the ire directed at textbooks relates not to the format itself, but rather to the way it’s marketed. Constantly changing editions, nonsensical prices, and the physically unfriendly format of the books. E-books on a Kindle might seem like a welcome relief.

  3. Artemas Gruzdef

    That the printed book, not the electronic one, fits naturally within our current (medieval) education process, is to be expected. This is not an interesting finding. Besides, the e-book, as it exists today, is a kludge. It’s not unlike the early television show which was just a radio show with a camera pointed at it.

    I expect that by the same inexorable force of progress school teachers will be (hopefully) replaced by robots (a contemporary Honda robot is already a bit more intelligent than an average unionized public school teacher, and a lot less expensive). Then we’ll see studies that show how children like their old flesh-and-blood teachers better.

  4. Franklin Chen

    I read both paper books and e-books. For a long time I resisted e-books, but their convenience has made them indispensable (portability and text search, for examples). Still, there is nothing like doing some paper book reading in the evening before bed (and studies have shown the bad effects on sleep of being exposed to lit screens at night).

    Nevertheless, I believe there is a future for e-books. First of all, e-books right now are nothing resembling what they could be. A static version of a paper books is pretty sad, but is what most e-books are right now. Second, I detect a lot of emotional and anecdotal discussions out there, when scientific studies should be done instead. For example, it’s not very relevant what students “like” or don’t like. Actual research has shown that many if not most things students tend to like are not effective to their learning at all! So I would just remove the “like” factor from the discussion, and do things like test understanding, etc. Controlled studies.

  5. jimbo in limbo

    Follow the money. The textbook publishers see bigger profits. Instead of printing, warehousing, distributing, then updating the book and going through the whole process again they can (I oversimplify) press the easy button. Make endless copies. No warehousing. Easy distribution. And you can charge the same price! Look at eBooks. Yeah, they’re all for a fast changeover.

  6. Christine

    Digital product is not cheaper to produce than books. Sure, new editions of books are expensive and slow to market, but it is far more expensive to develop top quality digital product (as distinct from glorified PDFs). That would be fine if we know the life expectancy of digital products, as they are cheaper to maintain, but we do not. They would be cheaper to maintain than books for as long as the technology stays the same, but does anyone know the relative costs of bringing out a new edition of a book compared to porting a digital product from one delivery tool to another? I think it is dangerous to jump on the “all digital” bandwagon until the technology settles down an bit and it becomes clear what product best suits what purpose. Maybe one size does not fit all.

  7. Artemas Gruzdef

    Christine, to produce a physical book you need to create a computer file then send it to an expensive printing machine which requires a lot of electricity, water, ink, paper and a highly paid human operator. To produce an e-book you need to create a computer file, that’s it.

  8. christine

    Artemis, I think you fail to understand just how much it costs to create a good digital book. I wish it was a simple as you say – I am an educational publisher facing the challenge of moving from print to digital, and I can assure you, the cost of creating quality digital product, particularly for small markets, is close to prohibitive. Print IS cheaper, particularly now the actual printing part of the process is done in China and much of the repetitive typesetting is done in India. I don’t condone this – its just the way it is. If you want to argue with this please share your business credentials, some examples of quality digital product you have produced, the price it cost to create it, and the price point and market size necessary to make it profitable. You may know something that the industry at large does not.

  9. Nick Post author

    I think that Artemas is making the mistake, common in analyses of markets for digital goods, of assuming that the only costs that matter are the marginal costs of producing a copy of an existing product: “To produce an e-book you need to create a computer file, that’s it.” As Christine points out, before you can make the copy you actually have to pay the upfront costs of creating the product in the first place, and for the imagined multimedia, interactive e-textbook, those costs are high. You’re talking about the work of not only writer, editor, proofreader, and designer, but, often, of a videographer, video editor, illustrator, animator, sound technician, photographer, and the programmers needed to create the interactive bits, including the personalized exercise and quiz protocols. And you have to keep updating the thing, as you do any software application. And you probably have to host some of it for dynamic access.

    In the end, consumers have to cover all those costs. If they don’t, you don’t get the products – at least not for long.

  10. Artemas Gruzdef

    Nick, you’re right, but I wasn’t referring the ideal future e-book, I was talking about the current crop of e-books which, as I said before, are a kludge.

    I buy a lot of e-books for my Kindle and their quality is subpar: layout is always bad, typos are abound etc. So, clearly, less work has gone into them than into their printed counterparts, and they are even cheaper to produce than my original argument implies.

    If we try to imagine the glorious e-book of the future, we should compare its production costs to the Hollywood blockbuster, of course.

  11. Artemas Gruzdef

    Christine, could you please give me an example of a good digital book with prohibitively large production values? I would love to see it (if I need to pay for it, I probably will).

  12. Thomas Parker

    It’s not the insertion of digital texts into the classroom that bothers me – that’s going to happen and will certainly be of benefit in some subjects and for many students. What bothers me is the instant attitude (grounded in faith rather than reason, as Carr points out) that says that a new technology is indisputably and in all cases better than an older one (simply by virtue of being new, I guess – but to accept that is buying advertising, not making reasoned distinctions), and that says that technology solves all problems but creates none; that in fact, all problems are problems of technology. But we’re not doing any real thinking about how this tech is changing us and our society. Just one example that’s been on my mind lately – where before, people would describe something they had seen or heard, now they take out their phone and show you a youtube video or a picture. Need a fact? People aren’t searching their brains, they’re searching Google or Wikipedia. Navigating an unfamiliar city? Maps – which require a very particular kind of mental work to use – have gone the way of cunieform; the GPS knows all (and a technology in which the user is active has been replaced by one in whcih the user is passive.) People are just using the part of the brain that remembers and reconstructs less and less – what does that mean? Maybe nothing. I suspect it does mean something, but in any case, we’re letting ourselves be stampeded into an unquestioning, unresisting acceptance of a technological agenda that needs serious examination. A world where your phone knows everything, and the only thing you know is how to work your phone, does not seem implausible to me, or at least it’s not as implausible as it seemed six or eight years ago. I should probably get off Zooey Deschanel’s back, but I continue to be riled by that iphone commercial she did a while back, where she stood in her living room, with her back to the window, and asked her phone if it was raining, waiting for “Siri” to answer her question…and this was presented, without the least trace of irony, as a wonderful thing. But what am I grousing about? I suspect that rather than being yet another “end of western civilization,” that commercial and what it implied are actually that apex of western civilization, the thing towards which wev’e been striving since the Mesopotamians started piling bricks on top of each other. (On top of other bricks, I mean – not on top of other Mesopotamians, thugh they did that too.) I’m just not so eager to accept what’s being piled on top of me right now.

  13. Guy

    The problem with eTextbooks is that they are some of the worst software I have ever seen in my entire life. They are so dreadful that it makes me almost sick. I bought an etextbook once for class a year or two ago and it has got to be the worst experience I have ever had with a book. First, you had to download a special program that ran the textbook, it wasn’t something you could load onto your ipad or kindle. Nope, had to run on a laptop. 2) It would only work online, so no going outside to study had to do it near an active internet connection. 3) It had to have been designed by someone working 5$ an hour because it was the worse UI I have ever seen. Even worse was that it was so buggy that the thing would crash while I was trying to do something like search.

    Seriously, it is embarrassing how bad the etextbook readers really are. They have to be some of the worse software I have ever used in my entire life. Just sad. Once that is fixed I think they would take off like fire. But who knows if the publishers even want that to happen.

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