Universities and school districts across the US are adopting digital textbooks in droves, but as students use this latest educational panacea more and more are reporting that it does not live up to the hype.
Many of those who are actually using the textbooks are questioning whether there is any real value to digital textbooks or whether older methods will still work better.
For example, last week a student journalist with Carnegie Mellon University's The Tartan student newspaper reported that he found that school's online textbook platforms to be less useful than pen on paper:
For subjects like chemistry, mathematics, and economics, however, online homework is frustrating. There is practically no room to take notes in the margins of readings. Need an answer? There’s no option to keep your finger on the answer page to check if you’re right after finishing problems. All of that is now within the depths of a computer screen. The formula is 20 clicks away, and answers are almost impossible to retrieve without opening a second tab — probably another 20 clicks.
WebAssign is a classic example of how counterproductive online learning can be. For multiple-choice questions, it’s easy to click random buttons and achieve perfect scores. While this random clicking is a marginal blessing for QPAs and stress levels, students do not actually learn — they guess.
And he's not the only one.
Bryon Brown, an economics professor at Michigan State University, recently gave a talk in which he mentioned that he had considered offering digital textbooks to his students but concluded that the costs outweighed the benefits:
E-textbooks present more problems than simply their worth, Brown said.
These problems, he said, ranged from problems with viewing e-textbooks online, such as quality of the material online, to navigation within the e-textbooks, static content, contract issues, viewing issue and accessibility for handicap students.
“Textbooks are important,” Brown said. “The market is arranged in the way where the students have a choice [as to where they buy books]. It’s not obvious to the instructors that there’s new material out there. With a few exceptions, e-books are overpriced, compared to normal books and have problems, including accessibility to handicap people.”
I too have raised questions about the value of digital textbooks. Even when students do have the tech to access the online textbooks they might not have the internet connection needed to do so. For example, last December I reported on the Fairfax school district and their then-new plan to revamp their digital textbook pilot with the addition of optional paper textbooks. Far too many students lacked ready access to the internet at home and that kept them from using their assigned digital textbooks.
While these complaints focus mainly on online textbook platforms, a number of the issues raised also apply to textbooks on platforms like iBooks, Coursesmart, and Kindle. Cost issues, for example, and the usability problems described above apply to all digital textbooks. While a lot of proponents claim that digital textbooks are cheaper, when you deduct the resale value of a paper textbook the resulting price is often less than the rental or purchase price for a similar digital title.
So why are these complaints coming so many months after adoption?
Honestly, that should come as no surprise. There has always been a disconnect between the people who make textbook decisions and the people who actually pay for and use the textbooks, and this can lead to an interesting news cycle.
In the early stages of a digital textbook deployment the news is great and everyone is optimistic because the publishers' marketing depts have managed to win over the decision makers, but it's not until later that the actual users have a chance to speak up and comment upon the tools they have been handed.
image by Ed Yourdon