E-books Go to School

Article first published as E-books Go to School – What is the Plan for Implementation? on Blogcritics.

On Monday, text book publisher McGraw-Hill rolled out its first digital, cloud-based textbook.   While McGraw-Hill had previously sold digital supplements to print curriculum, this will be the first all-digital effort available to the K-12 market.  It comes as something of a surprise that it has taken so long, but the hardware limitations frequently faced by schools had until recently presented enough of an obstacle to discourage publishers.  According to Sarah Kessler at Mashable, the e-books will be part of a complete online curriculum for K-12 math and 7-12 science which will also allow students to “participate in Facebook-like conversations that stay with the text.”  Polly Stansell, of McGraw-Hill, explains, “We’re trying to meet students and teachers where they’re at digitally.”

A recent study, however, suggests that this may not necessarily be the wisest strategy, at least as far as educational effectiveness is concerned.  The University of California Libraries recently released the findings of a 2010 survey of e-book users which included graduate and undergraduate students as well as post-doctoral researchers and faculty members.  Surprisingly, the youngest participants registered the strongest preference for print.  Undergraduates reported the highest percentage of participants, 58%, preferring print textbooks over e-books.  Altogether, 44% of the participants said they preferred print, while only 35% said they preferred e-books.

Participants were also asked to explain their preference, and their responses were summarized by Nicholas Carr as follows, “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.”  One response in particular, also cited by Carr, was especially illuminating:

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 …”

Practical, sensible flexibility of this sort implies the freedom to fit a technology to the educational situation.  Unfortunately, it is more often the case that the educational situation must conform to the technology.  Education is often driven by a certain faddishness, and this seems to be especially true when it comes to technology.  There is long and undistinguished list of tools and devices that were all intended to revolutionize the field and deployed into classrooms precipitously and with little evidence of their value.

This drive to implement new technologies is often accompanied by the rhetoric of choice and freedom for students and teachers, but choice is often precisely what gets left behind.  An all online, cloud based curriculum certainly expands the materials available to students and teachers, but it would almost certainly eliminate the kind of flexibility enjoyed by the student cited in the University of California study.  When schools buy in to new technologies the financial investment yields a corresponding pressure to implement what has been purchased.  This pressure is typically a function of avoiding the appearance of wasted money rather than evidence that education would be made more effective.

The educational value of e-books will likely be uneven as is often the case with any technology, even print; only time will tell. Ideally, the implementation of e-books will be guided by a willingness to perceive the circumstances under which they offer a genuine advance over print and where print still retains the advantage. In part, this is a matter of bending the tool to the needs of the student, rather than bending the student to fit the demands of the tool. Buying into (literally and figuratively) the ideology of educational technology fed by industry marketing undermines the discernment necessary to make just those kinds of judgments.

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