E-textbooks: What’s the rush?

Don’t rush to adopt e-textbooks, advises Daniel Willingham. It’s not clear they’re better, at least as currently produced, and students prefer traditional textbooks. “Some data indicate that reading electronic textbooks, although it leads to comparable comprehension, takes longer.”

Further, many publishers are not showing a lot of foresight in how they integrate video and other features in the electronic textbooks. . . . multimedia learning is more complex than one would think. Videos, illustrative simulations, hyperlinked definitions–all these can aid comprehension OR hurt comprehension, depending on sometimes subtle differences in how they are placed in the text, the specifics of the visuals, the individual abilities of readers, and so on.

What works for e-books — putting the same words in a new format — may not work for e-texts, Willingham writes. “Textbooks have different content, different structure, and they are read for different purposes.”


About Joanne


  1. While I agree that no one should be rushing in without a plan, the transition seems pretty inevitable. To start with, why not contract with textbook manufacturers to provide one eBook with every print book and let the student decide?

    I know I would pick the eBook for everything except math and maybe science. For literature or language textbooks or anything else that was mostly text, eBooks are just better. Your bookmarks and highlights follow you from device to device, you own the book for life, they weigh less and are backed up to the cloud, you can change the page from black on white (good in bright situations) to white text on black (better for reading in the dark) and so on.

    I think it will take a few years for the Format Wars to be fought out (Blue Ray vs HD DVD took less than five years once competition really started), but that shouldn’t take too long and we can all hope that an open standard will emerge that has all the functionality that Apple’s iBookAuthor has.

    • Sean Mays says:

      why not … let the student decide …

      In dealing with teens, let’s remember that the old pre-frontal cortex isn’t fully developed. They don’t plan well about consequences. That’s why, supposedly, we don’t let them form contracts or subject them (usually) to adult consequences for their actions.

      Of course, I’d be concerned about the indication that reading from a screen takes longer. Numbers I’ve seen indicate 25 to 33% longer. That’s material in my mind. And who pays for these toys when they get broken?

      There have been days while teaching where I’d have loved NOT to have a math book, just assign problems and send em off to think and practice what we did in class.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      Except a novel lasts a lot longer than an e-reader and costs about $10 each.

  2. Ponderosa says:

    I love this “inevitable”. Silicon Valley gets to decide fundamental questions of how we’ll live our lives? Did I get to vote for the leaders of Silicon Valley? Am I the only one that thinks that this is a subversion of the spirit of democracy?

    • He didn’t mean ‘inevitable’ in the sense that Silicon Valley was choosing how we live our lives for us; there’s a lot of interest in e-books and I think in the long run most published and bought books will be e-books. Will it replace the printed book? Of course not. Did radio replace live orchestra? Did TV replace radio? Did the Internet replace TV? It’s just that the books you see in printed form won’t be near the number they used to be.

      And, to answer another comment I saw on this thread, it is a good point that this won’t become a reality until the Kindle Fires, Nook Colors, iPads, etc. are cheap enough that they can easily be replaced, without a parent (if we’re talking about K-12 students) or college student pulling their hair out over the cost. And I don’t think that will take long either; maybe 10-15 years max, at the rate they’re selling now.

  3. J. D. Salinger says:

    Yep, it’s as inevitable as the flipped classroom and Khan videos.

  4. I agree with the statement that the transition to e-books is ‘inevitable’. I think that most of us have a fond connection to books, especially since we relied on them so heavily during our school days; but the reality is that e-books offer so many advantages. They will enable students as well as teachers to be better organized (no more searching for or forgetting textbooks) and eliminate the necessity of carrying heavy books to and from school. I can’t really imagine that any more time would be required to read an e-book in comparison to reading a regular book.

    • Sean Mays says:


      It’s not a slam dunk, but it bears thinking about. Personally, I find glare management on a screen to be distracting. I’ve never seen a screen as anti-glare/reflective as a book. I wonder how many people have a “physical memory” of the book: “oh yeah, something about that was on the left side of the page, about 2/3 of the way through the book.” *fliiiiiip … yep, there it is.

      Organized? Maybe. But then there are the tech issues – dead battery, hung or buggy software; files lost or corrupted; etc …

      I’ve never had an “unexpected end of input” error from a book. Good cliff hangers aside.

      • You make good points, but they’ll all be ironed out over time. Remember how advocates of the typewriter reacted to Microsoft Word…

  5. That’s true regardless of their experience with ebooks, so it’s not because students are unfamiliar with them (Woody, Daniel & Baker, 2010). Further, some data indicate that reading electronic textbooks, although it leads to comparable comprehension, takes longer (e.g., Dillon, 1992; Woody et al, 2010).

  6. There’s a dog-that-didn’t-bark aspect to this piece in that there are bags of complaints about textbooks that are heavy on glossy paper, wide margins, graphics of dubious value and widely-spaced text and Dan’s treating the whole field as if educational efficacy were a crucial factor in textbook design.

    If the volume of complaints about over-priced, excelsior-filled, politically-oversensitive textbooks of dubious educational value is any guide there are bigger fish to fry then whether e-textbooks are being designed to be as effective as possible. Worrying about the optimal deckchair arrangement becomes relatively less important if the cruise liner’s sinking.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    E-textbooks are inevitable if and only if the bugs are worked out and they get cheap enough.

    Many people just assume that will happen because it has happened with so much of electronic technology, e.g. smartphones. Though, even there, there is definitely a “cheap enough” problem.

    • Both will happen. It’s just a matter of time. I forsee the Kindle Fires, Nook Colors, iPads, etc. of the world getting really cheap in the next 20 years or less.

      • Sean Mays says:

        I’m holding out for foldable “electronic paper” like Dr. Haywood was reading in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

        As to your point about looking it up on another source; THAT’s the great economy of scale. If you’ve got the “Top 10” useful extra’s linked, it saves having to hunt it down. It’s quick, fast and easy. Remember the Pacific Tree Octopus; many students (and adults?) critical thinking skills aren’t all that hot; do we want them trawling the vastness of the Internet semi-randomly rather than having a good, verified high quality source??

        Tree Octopus link …


  8. Why does there HAVE to be multimedia integrated into every e-textbook? Why can’t it simply be the actual textbook, in a PDF / Kindle / etc. format? If the students want to see Apollo 11 land on the Moon, hear some early 20th Century jazz, or see a large, detailed picture of the Mona Lisa, there are plenty of places on the Internet to do that already. This insistence on having multimedia quick-linked into every page of an e-textbook is what’s slowing this trend down.

    • Another great point. All these tables already have full Internet access these days anyway. Are the people demanding all these bells and whilstles be included in these e-books aren’t capable of going to Google or YouTube on their own and doing a search?

    • ‘Tablets’, not ‘tables’, I meant. And ‘Are the people demanding all these bells and whistles be inbluded in these e-books don’t think the students are capable of going to Google or YouTube on their own and doing a search?’

      Don’t type and eat at the same time, kids! 😛

  9. I can’t wait until the day when everyone in K-12 and early college (I think that later college students and grad school students will still prefer their textbooks; they’re the ‘nerds’ that actually likes to keep them and collect them!) can walk around with a tablet in their backpack containing all their textbooks – as well as lots of other e-books – as well as doing all the other cool things that tablets can do these days (get on the Internet, etc.) It’ll be one step closer to the 24th Century in Star Trek!