Why Digital Textbooks Won’t Transform Education


The Obama administration on Wednesday announced that schools should get digital textbooks into students’ hands within five years.  Ostensibly, this is about more than just making sure carrying around 50 or more pounds of textbooks every day won’t cause them permanent bodily damage.  As Karon Cator, director of the Education Department’s office of education technology, states:


“We’re not talking about the print-based textbook now being digital. We’re talking about a much more robust and interactive and engaging environment to support learning.”


So, the reason behind the challenge coming from the Department of Education seems to be that they believe etextbooks hold the power to engage our students and will help them learn more – and perhaps remember more. Hmmm.  I don’t believe what we currently know about how the brain works would support this theory.


I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this, ever since Apple made its big announcement about their new iBooks, their partnership with the Big 3 textbook companies to deliver these kind of “interactive” textbooks and the new iAuthor MAC app where anyone can create their own interactive textbook. I have to admit, I got caught up in the excitement of the moment initially thinking it could transform education as we know it.  I seriously love my iPad, and seldom go anywhere without it. But, I don’t use it much to read, truth be told. I use it to interact, create, and collaborate. I collect ideas, photos, sounds, and organize them to share with others.    I browse and share  the news (my news – through Zite),  I play Words with Friends, I chat with friends  (Twitter & Facebook),  I research at a point of need, curate that information,  and I check email. Ironically, the most recent book I downloaded  on my iPad was Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and I can’t seem to make my way to the end of the book. I have also downloaded the very cool, free Life on Earth textbook in my new and improved iBooks app, but haven’t been motivated to explore it much beyond my first browsing experience.  So –for me, someone who could readily be called addicted to learning, reading on a device that offers so many more appealing ways to learn is difficult, at best. And while I am a “digital immigrant,” I suspect that most of today’s students would agree with me on this point.  I want to learn what I want, when I want, and how I want.  The iPad makes this possible.


Another point that makes me think that etextbooks – no matter how cool they are – will not transform education, is, as my friend Mary Johnson says, a textbook is a textbook.  Cator declares these new textbooks are interactive.  So what?  Manipulating a graphic, watching a video, or answering embedded questions that simply require recall level thinking are not going to assure students learn more or better. Research on how the brain works tells us that it is the active use of the information in new situations that strengthens neural pathways.  (I highly recommend Judy Willis’ work on learning & the brain – check out some of her work here – also Eric Jensen’s work – check out his blog here. )  While brain-based learning does support some of the elements that these multimedia etextbooks can bring to the table,  there are too many other necessary elements to learning that they will not deliver any more than a 5-pound print textbook will.


And – if you are thinking Apple’s new $14.99 textbook price will be more economical in the long run –even with the price of the iPad, think again.  In a meeting with our Apple sales rep this week, we learned that the etextbooks they are offering are essentially consumables.  School districts will be given  a code for the download of the textbook. However, institutions (i.e. school districts) are not permitted to redeem those codes. Only individuals can do this from their personal iTunes accounts.  So –students will own the textbooks forever and ever –not the school districts.  If you currently keep textbooks for 5 years, under Apple’s rules, you will have to buy a new set every year – bringing the net expense to about $75 per book ($15 x 5)  – plus the price of the iPad.


I do believe devices such as iPads that allow for anytime, anywhere  learning have great potential to transform education – but the etextbook part of that – not so much. Students need to be engaged in active learning, problem solving, creating, and sharing. eTextbooks just aren’t an essential part of the equation.

Author: Nancy White

Learner, Curator, Innovator, Teacher, Librarian, and Collaborator. Passionate about designing learning that is engaging, relevant & sticks. 20+ years in education.

One thought on “Why Digital Textbooks Won’t Transform Education”

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Nancy! I especially appreciated the insights about Apple’s textbook pricing structure.


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