E-textbooks: Will they be better?

Digital textbooks are inevitable, writes Gilbert Sewall of the American Textbook Council in Education Week. Many expect Apple’s iPad to be used as an e-reader (and e-TV). But will e-textbooks be better?

The big textbook publishers now face competition from small online publishers and non-profits, Sewall writes. They may be unable to preserve their “lucrative near-monopoly” on elementary and secondary textbooks.

Look for the major publishers to repackage and redo what exists in their computer banks, including abundant online and CD-based supplements.

. . . 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.

However, Sewall warns that “electronic formats are not conducive to sustained reading.”

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.”

Currently, digital textbooks make up less than 5 percent of sales, including at the college level. Sewall predicts e-books will prove more useful in high school and college than in the primary grades.

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.

E-books will be able to substitute videos for text. The temptation to go for the glitz is hard to resist.

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  1. I think at this juncture, with examples like High Tech High and the like, it’s clear that a sprinkling of techno-pixie powder isn’t what’s lacking so the answer is “no”, e-books won’t be the savior of public education.

    There is, however, a somewhat related phenomenon – open source textbooks.

    “Related” in the sense that the concept of open source has its roots in the technological community.

    Ultimately though the problem’s political.

    If Texas continues to mandate a single source of decision-making on choice of text book then all Texas text books will be determined by the political process. But open source text books provide a route out from under the dominance of the big text book publishers.

  2. SuperSub says:

    E-books will never become the standard for public K-12. Why? It will be too expensive.
    For the books to be effective at all, students will have to be allowed to carry their e-books through school and home. The cost of continually replacing lost or damaged e-books will be prohibitive, dwarfing the cost of standard textbooks.
    A district I once worked with paid the local BOCES to print up and bind textbooks/workbooks designed by the teachers. This replaced both the standard textbook and reams of photocopying for worksheets. In the end, it saved them plenty of money.

  3. E-books expensive? Only if they’re copyrighted. Otherwise the cost of duplication is zero if it’s device-to-device or trivial if it’s being copied to electronic media like a DVD or flash drive. Open source obviates concerns about copyright while allowing anyone make changes to the books as they see fit.

    Of course the real problem is the politicized nature of public education in which saving money isn’t nearly as important as it’s casually assumed to be and may, in fact, be counterproductive. At least politically counterproductive.

    Then there’s the fact that the textbook company reps have quite generous expense accounts so that they can make their sales pitches in very salubrious surroundings.

  4. Oh, get over it. Textbooks will be electronic as soon as it’s economically feasible. Here’s why: electronic works can just be BETTER.

    Literally last night, I was reading Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Reading along, I encountered a reference to a “Delian Sage”. I’m pretty junior at this Ancient Greece stuff, so I didn’t know what the hell it meant.

    Out comes the laptop and Wikipedia and, within a few minutes, I understand that the island of Delos is the purported birthplace of Apollo and the sage was a priest of Apollo and it all makes sense now.

    How much better would it have been if I was reading the book electronically in the first place and the reference to “Delian Sage” had just been a link? The fact is that we EXPECT our media to be smarter now because it CAN be. Why SHOULDN’T the tools to help me understand this ancient play be right at hand?

    It’s not just hyperlinks from bits of text, either. A reference in the play to ancient Greek farmers should include – without me having to search for it, or even know that I should search for it – a reference to Hesiod’s Works and Days and modern interpretation of the Greek hoplite/farmer/citizen and all that that implies. I’m trying to LEARN here; I need all the help I can get!

  5. @ Rob

    I agree that those would be nice features…but you don’t need an e-text to implement them. Better books have – for decades – used footnotes to explain precisely those issues you described to generations of students.

    I do like the idea of electronic textbooks, and I suspect that they probably will come some day. But I don’t think anytime soon, and certainly not on the iPad – for now paper texts are still better.


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