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The Future of Textbooks: Ebooks in the Classroom


Will the classroom of the future be devoid of paper? A discussion of digital textbooks, their advantages and possible effects.

Until recently, classrooms had remained virtually unchanged for nearly a hundred years – desks were arranged in neat rows facing a chalkboard at the front of the room, students took notes on paper, and read from printed textbooks.

Things started to change with the advent of whiteboards and projection equipment and, even more recently, individual computers. The trend is continuing, and the next casualty of the technological revolution appears to be the printed textbook.

DigitalOwl, a Winter Park, Florida-based software company, is one of the first to venture into the fledgling digital textbook market. The company is sponsoring a Florida Digital Textbook Initiative, replacing traditional textbooks at several Florida schools with e-textbooks on laptops and ebook reading devices.

Matt Gomez, marketing manager at DigitalOwl, believes that schools are ready and eager to introduce electronic textbooks to the classroom. Since announcing the initiative, DigitalOwl has received inquiries from around the U.S., and around the world, from schools who want to learn more about the opportunity.

Still, there are many people who remain skeptical about moving from print to screen. Studies comparing reading on screen and paper for comprehension and accuracy tend to lean in favor of print. Ebook apologists point out that most of those studies were conducted in the late 1980s, and screen resolution and scroll-speed have increased dramatically since then.

Print still may have the advantage, though. A 1998 study published in the Human Factors & Ergonomics Society journal reported a decline in speed and accuracy, and an increase in fatigue, when reading from a screen rather than paper. Anecdotal evidence also gives an advantage to paper. Editors prefer to proofread from paper, where the errors seem to jump out more than on screen. Chris McAskill of has stated that the vast majority of ebook purchasers print before reading. In fact, all the electronic sources cited in this article were first printed out on paper before they were read.

Gabriel B. Frommer, a professor of psychology at Indiana University offers his Introductory Psychology students a Web-based textbook. In a 1998 paper describing his efforts, Frommer also describes some student reactions:

A paper version appears to be almost necessary. It is certainly convenient. A few students cannot get to computers easily because the commute and do not have computers at home. Also, many students do not like to work on the computer, especially for the long periods which become necessary if people wait until the last minute to do the assigned exercises…. Many also point out that a paper version is much easier to use when preparing for a test. As a result, I now prepare a paper version….

The supremacy of paper over monitor may be diminishing. There are many who believe that the new generation of learners, what Don Tapscott calls the Net Generation, or N-Gen, are much more accustomed to reading and learning from a screen. In his book Growing Up Digital, Tapscott writes, “Kids look at computers the same way boomers look at TV. This shift from broadcast medium (television) to interactive medium (the Net) signals a ‘generation lap’ in which the N-Gen is lapping its parents on the ‘info-track.'”

Matt Gomez agrees that children are more likely to take to electronic learning than their elders. “Students are the early adopters,” he said. “They’re still not going to want to do their homework, but when textbooks are interactive, when they can play with them like Nintendo, perhaps it will make learning a more enjoyable experience.”

“We’re spending too much money
with too little thought…”

In his 1993 book Technopoly, Neil Postman warns that technology is never neutral, and the benefits and deficits of new technology are not distributed equally – there are winners, and there are losers, and it’s not always clear who the winners are until the losers are vanquished. If we accept this as true, we ought to be very careful about introducing new technologies to the classroom without first studying their potential effects.

Surely we should consider that the American Academy of Pediatrics has expressed concern about the amount of time children spend in front of computers, and that various eye experts, according to Jane Healy, believe computer use is creating problems with visual development in young children.

Healy, author of Failure to Connect, fears we’ve already gone too far, and questions the impact computer technology is having on children’s brain development and social interaction. “While some very exciting and potentially valuable things are happening between children and computers,” she writes, “we are currently spending far too much money with too little thought.”

But Postman also asserts that technologies are never entirely harmful, and often the benefits outweigh the deficits to a culture. The adoption of electronic textbooks has some clear advantages to students and educators. David Gray, founder of New York City-based can count off a handful in a matter of seconds: e-textbooks allow for electronic bookmarking and highlighting, keyword searches, electronic mail, links to Web resources related to the topic, and ways for teachers to customize the information for their class. sells electronic textbooks to the college market. Partnering with publishers like Addison Wesley Longman, Harcourt Brace, Thompson, and Wiley, WizeUp has released introductory level textbooks in economics, finance, computer science, sociology and engineering. The electronic textbooks are still pricey, between $20 and $80 (USD) each, but less expensive than their print counterparts – another advantage students can appreciate.

Looking at the elementary and secondary school markets, DigitalOwl sees even more advantages. Matt Gomez, DigitalOwl’s marketing manager said, “Some of the history textbooks in the Florida school system don’t even mention the Clinton administration, that’s how old they are. Digital textbooks can be updated on the fly with information on what happened in legislature two weeks ago.” There’s no longer an excuse for a textbook to be out of date.

Digital textbooks can also save school systems money, Gomez says. “Textbooks are easily damaged, lost and quickly outdated.” Digital textbooks, on the other hand can always stay up-to-date, and are inexpensive to replace.

But is this ‘buy once, update forever’ model of textbook publishing going to be perceived as a threat to the textbook publishing industry?

“Textbook Publishers are Holding Us Back…”

Although companies like DigitalOwl and are eager to place digital textbooks in every classroom, textbook publishing companies have been cautious about converting their titles into electronic format. Concerns about digital rights management and piracy, as well as fears that electronic books will cannibalize their print sales are some of the reasons publishers are testing the waters cautiously.

DigitalOwl’s staff has been speaking with most of the large educational publishers – Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin, Pearson, Prentice Hall and others – but have found their project held back by the laggard pace of the publishers.

Matt Gomez stressed that although some publishers may feel threatened, DigitalOwl isn’t trying to cannibalize traditional textbook sales. “It will be a long, long time before print textbooks are replaced by technology.” In the meantime, he says, publishers should look at the digital textbook market as a way to increase revenues. “Publishers can make even more money by selling the electronic texts at an extra price point.”

A further advantage for publishers is that the encryption and copy protection that prevents piracy also effectively eliminates the used textbook market which has put a dent in new textbook sales. The effect of the used book market on the industry has been seen as so severe that the Association of American Publishers has even launched a six-figure nationwide campaign to help college textbook publishers “combat the issues of perceived value, sell-through and competition from the used textbook market.”

Purchasing used textbooks, however, is one of the most cost effective ways for students to buy required books, and even the lower priced electronic versions are not as inexpensive as used copies. This benefit for publishers will not be welcome by students.

Perhaps the slow response of publishers to digitize textbooks is a blessing. The delay will give educators an opportunity to more closely examine the costs and benefits of using electronic books in a classroom setting. Let’s hope that the time will be used wisely.

— by Wendy J Woudstra

One Response to The Future of Textbooks: Ebooks in the Classroom

  • Hi Wendy!

    You raised some pretty good points on the future of textbook ebooks in the classroom. The digitization of print media means the end of slinging heavy (and sometimes unused) textbooks to and from classrooms. But in order to do that, there must be a virtual repository of academic textbooks – one with a standard format applicable to all mobile devices – that allows rental and purchase of numerous eTextbooks, all conveniently accessible to students with the click of a button.

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