The Digital Textbook "Revolution"

I'm going to start this post off by sighing. A huge long, defeated, "what the fuck are we going to do?" kind of sigh. If you know me you can hear it.

At the high school I teach at, the English department has been using the same text books for a really, really long time- I'm thinking probably somewhere around 7 or more years. Because of budget cuts we've been told a new adoption is still a few years off, meaning the books will be continued to be lost and damage (no one likes opening a book and seeing a gigantic cock drawn on the title page). I'm not necessarily a huge proponent of text books to begin with, but I think they definitely have their necesary place. This "no new book" policy is across the board, including new novels and the text books for the other subjects. It's a huge inconvenience and is a detriment to these kids' education (it makes me most angriest, to be honest, that the science ones aren't being updated- that area probably has the most advances).

Enter digital textbooks. Return to me sighing.

As we all know, I have taken a firm stance against eBooks. I'm not going to beat a dead horse, but let's just say I have a very special place in my heart for print- the smell, the feel, the weight, the ability to collect. But, I have to confess I'm starting to ease up a little bit on the idea of using digital textbooks in the classroom. Here's my take:

- The textbook industry is a little like the pharmaceutical companies of education; they come out with new versions of a product and then convince everyone they need to spend a ton of money upgrading. They sell a lot of extra materials that don't get used, no matter how attractive and helpful they sound, therefore wasting more money. It's a shady industry (is this a bad time to mention that this is actually a career path I wouldn't necessarily turn down? Writing text books, that is).

- The public school system is broke; shelling out anywhere form $40 to $100+ on a student text book is ridiculous. I just pulled up the same Pearson Biology on iTunes (they just launched a huge textbook initiative) and Amazon, and it was $75 in print and just $15 digitally. That's a ridiculous amount of saved money (which may be deceiving if you take into account the hardware to play it on; we'll get there). I do not believe novels should be replaced, as they are small and still affordable.

- At the collegiate level, this shift would be incredibly cost effective. Many students have ereaders, iPads, and tablets making this a more reasonable transition. Personally, it wouldn't have worked for me because I like highlighting and constantly referring to other pages, but I know for some it would. There were semesters I spent $500 or more on books; buying an iPad and the digital copies would have barely been more.

- Students need to learn how to comprehend and utilize digital information. It's here to stay.

- Less trees to cut down (although the jury's out on just how damaging eReaders are to the environment).

There are definitely drawbacks, though, which keep me on the fence:

- Students would have to have an eReader or tablet; if they were utilizing Apple's products they would have to have access to an iPad, which runs a disgusting $499. Cheaper readers, like Kindles, are a few hundred dollars less but don't offer the same titles (and they don't seem as inexpensive, either). Schools would then have to calculate how cost effective it really was to purchase the electronic equipment and the texts.

- Kids ruin everything, meaning that these pricey little tools would eventually feel the impact. I am a firm believer that elementary students shouldn't have any sort of tablet, period. They need to learn how to care for books, use their imaginations, participate in hands-on activities, and earn the right to be trusted with something so valuable. Middle school and high school students would have to take a workshop in using them and their parents would need to sign some sort of responsibility contract (which is another can of worms). Damaged and lost equipment would then add to the cost of implementing such a system. According to the Williams Act, students must have the necessary materials to learn at all times- a hurdle, no doubt.

- This goes along with the previous item, but theft is also a concern. If we implemented tablets schools would stop buying textbooks, meaning no longer giving students a home set, implying they would be allowed to take the ereader home. It's a sad world- many would get stolen or even sold.

- Books are pretty reliable- 90% of the time page 100 is after 99 (the other 10% of the time a kid has already ripped it out or has written "fuck you bitch ass Mrs. So and So" and it's been removed). Technology invites malfunction and charging needs, which could lead to learning disruption.

- It's pretty easy to monitor a student activity when using a text book, but a bit harder on an ereader. I've been in many meetings with my laptop cruising the interwebs while the presenter thought I was taking notes (I know, I know), so I know that students may not really be as on task as they appear to be.

- There seems to be such a traditional connection between education and books; it's a little sad to see that diminish.

Who knows what the future will bring, but I'm fairly confident in the next few decades the transitions will be made. And, rest assured, I am not developing a soft spot for Kindles, iPads or any other reading gadget, nor will I ever buy one.


  1. The textbook that my students use (aka I pull it out when I need to supplement our activities) has great online resources. I get on their website a few times a month to get copies of activities, look at suggestions for topics we are covering, and to explore.

    My issues with etextbooks: It's hard for me (and other teachers) to know what's available to us because it's not in front of us. We have to go search for it. More often than not, we just stick with what we've used in the past.

    My other complaint: Not all my students have access to the necessary technology. Many of my 7th graders have ereaders, but not all, not even half. If we had only the online component as opposed to the actual book + the online goods, it would be very difficult for me to actually use the thing in the classroom.

    Great topic!*

  2. I agree with you. I can maybe see it working out in college, but in a public school? Come ON! COULD NOT WORK. Not when you have our public-school-budget-cut happy governor!

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