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.