No More Heavy Backpacks: The Rise of Digital Textbooks

Bobby Miller

Two years ago, Dave Johnston, a marine biologist at Duke University, had the idea to produce a digital textbook for students. In an email, he said that it felt wrong to ask students to buy five different textbooks for one class, especially considering only certain parts of each were used. He also believed that creating an interactive book would help students become more deeply involved with the material.

Better yet, an e-textbook could be updated immediately with recent findings, something important in a field where discoveries are constantly being made. Thanks to technical expertise and free authoring systems such as Apple’s iBooks Author, the project came to fruition and is being maintained to this very day under the name “Cachalot,” which is French for sperm whale.

Nvate techbooks and digital textbooks by iBooks, Google Chromebooks, McGraw-Hill and Cachalot by Dave Johnston

A student studies Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” on an iPad. Credit: Yahoo

This reflects how digital textbooks have become more common in recent years. The rise of lightweight devices such as tablet computers and e-readers has made them easily accessible. According to a study performed by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, “more than 40 percent of students or teachers use some sort of tablet in their Advanced Placement and National Writing Project classrooms.”

Yahoo has also noted that roughly 2,000 schools are using Google’s Chromebooks. Textbook companies are well aware of the profits to be found in digital textbooks. As Wired has pointed out, McGraw-Hill, a huge textbook publisher in the United States, releases about 95 percent of its books in electronic form.

The Advantages of Digital Textbooks: Updates, Interactivity and Price

There are a number of advantages to digital textbooks for publishers and students. To begin with, they are good for the environment since resources are not wasted in producing paper and shipping products. However, we’re assuming that students do not have to upgrade to different e-book readers on a regular basis. Swapping out an old electronic device for a new one always has some impact on the environment.

Many digital textbooks are also cheaper than their printed counterparts. For instance, Discovery Education has produced “techbooks” that cost between $38 and $55 per student for a six-year subscription, according to Yahoo. A printed textbook, on the other hand, usually costs about $70 per student. Since many schools have been struggling to maintain their budgets, anything that can trim costs is valuable.

Like Johnston’s Cachalot marine biology textbook, many digital textbooks can be updated with new information almost immediately. In a world where textbooks have to compete with online sources of information such as Wikipedia, this can help them remain relevant. This can also show students how the concepts they’re learning relate to current events.

For example, as Yahoo noted, one digital textbook used Superstorm Sandy as the basis for learning exercises. “Students traced the path of the storm using digital maps, compared the changes in barometric pressure with wind speed and proposed cleanup plans for the region—even while cleanup crews were still working,” according to Yahoo. Hopefully, this will result in fewer students complaining, “Why do we need to learn this stuff?”

There are other advantages to digital textbooks as well. For instance, News Corporation has introduced their Amplify tablet, as Yahoo reported. It “runs on a school’s wireless Internet system,” allowing teachers to monitor students’ activities and distribute quizzes to see how well students are grasping concepts.

Certain digital readers and textbook apps also allow students to take notes in their reading. Johnston’s Cachalot textbook, for instance, is powered by FLOW, which lets students “take notes, highlight text, tweet at content experts and perform Wolfram Alpha searches without leaving the screen,” according to Wired.

Nvate techbooks and digital textbooks by iBooks, Google Chromebooks, McGraw-Hill and Cachalot by Dave Johnston

The Cachalot textbook’s highlighting and note taking features. Credit:

Some schools, such as North Dakota State University, have their own digital textbooks for purchase. Their bookstore’s website advertises that their app allows for “printing, highlighting, page marking, note taking, keyword search, and read-out-loud audio.”

The keyword search is particularly useful, considering it makes searching through a 600-page textbook much more bearable. Features such as this offer a tremendous advantage over traditional textbooks. In elementary through high school, when the schools provide the physical textbooks, highlighting and note taking within the book is usually prohibited. And at college, when students have to buy textbooks on their own, they usually don’t want to do too much to them, since that decreases their resale value. A digital textbook allows for note taking and highlighting without damaging a book.

Finally, some textbooks even allow students to switch the language displayed. As Yahoo noted, this can allow nonnative speakers to check their understanding of the text.

The Disadvantages of Digital Textbooks: Socioeconomic Factors and Initial Costs

However, there are also possible drawbacks to using digital textbooks. They can actually end up being more expensive for college students. For example, the textbook “Human Biology,” published by CourseSmart, costs about $80 in its traditional form if purchased new, while the digital version is about $70. As Mashable noted, this is saving only 12.5 percent off of the price. And a student would actually be better off buying a used hardcopy at $50. We must also remember that hardcopy books can be resold once the class is over, lessening the costs even further. Plus, if a student does not have a convenient e-book reader, purchasing one would only add to the upfront costs. So while elementary, middle and high schools might save money with digital textbooks, college students might be better off going the more traditional route for now.

And those schools might face other issues by trying to switch students over to e-readers. In many cases, younger students are not allowed to bring the school-provided e-readers home. This is awfully problematic—how are teachers supposed to assign homework if students can’t bring the text home with them?

There is also the issue of trying to keep students focused. I’m sure every college student has been in this situation before—you’re researching using a laptop or tablet, and you decide to take a quick glance at your email or Facebook page, right at your fingertips. That “quick glance” could end up lasting over half an hour. If even college students can be distracted like that, how much more tempting would it be for younger ones? This is obviously not a problem for traditional textbooks.

It should also be noted that, if school administrators and other policy makers are trying to figure out how to make a school better, the answer probably isn’t to shift over to digital textbooks. Wired reported that one study conducted by “education policy expert and McGraw-Hill research director Harold Wenglinsky found that socioeconomic status mediate technology’s effects. Given equal access to computers, affluent students benefited more than poor students.” In other words, technology can improve a good school, but it will have little effect on a bad school. Because of this, education expert Mark Warschauer believes that struggling schools would be better off spending their funds on improving their teachers.

The Future of Digital Textbooks

With e-books becoming more popular for casual readers, it only makes sense that most textbooks will follow the same course. For better or for worse, our society is becoming used to seeing information displayed on a screen, not on paper. While digital textbooks come with their fair share of difficulties, they provide a number of advantages over traditional books. They allow students to stay up to date with the latest information, make learning more interactive and help the environment.

Schools should carefully consider the pros and cons before trying to make the transition from paper to digital textbooks, remembering that the shift will not solve deeper socioeconomic struggles faced by the institution. College students should also keep in mind what price they are willing to pay for textbooks; buying some digitally and others in hardcopy is an option. While digital textbooks may not offer a miraculous revolution in the learning environment, they are clearly a part of our future. When used wisely, they can promote up-to-date, interactive learning that is not possible through traditional print.

To purchase digital textbooks, check out the Amazon, Barnes & Noble and eCampus websites.

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