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Posts Tagged ‘e-textbooks

I read this article yesterday. It was titled Commentary: Do schools still need paper textbooks in a digital age?

Titles phrased with such questions tend to be answered with a no. School textbooks are a social issue because people decide to buy and use them. Like most social issues, the answers are complex and nuanced.

I know the author of the article quite well as she was someone I knew from the school system and she was an ex-colleague at NIE. However, that does not mean I cannot critique her ideas. I would expect her to critique mine, too, given that we are both offering open commentary.

I tweeted my reply in a nutshell.

This is me cracking the shell to reveal some nuts.

The article described students as “digital natives” at least twice. While this is a convenient label, it is not a fair and accurate one. This is like labelling someone a “millennial” as if there is such an average animal that fits some overall description.

The digital native debate has all but fizzled online over the last decade. It is no longer cool or relevant to use the phrase because it has been beaten ideologically and disproven pragmatically.

Far more articulate thought leaders and educators have reasoned why. So I share the many resources I have curated in Diigo about the false dichotomy created by digital natives.

Another edu-myth is learning styles. This was mentioned once in the article to justify e-textbooks.

Best of all, the multi-media platform adapts to our students’ varied learning styles, especially for those who may not absorb the best from text. Those with special needs, who have reading difficulties for instance, will have their learning strongly supported by features like text-to-speech, enabling schools to be inclusive, vibrant centres of learning for all.

Again, far more qualified and eloquent people have written about why learning styles is a myth perpetuated by emotion rather than fact. I offer my Diigo links and a simple argument.

Styles are very specific treatments. They are not preferences, aversions, abilities, or disabilities. The way learning styles was used in the article seemed to address disabilities, not actual pedagogical strategies and interventions to help a student.

Writing about digital natives and learning styles might be a way to connect reassuringly with the reader. However, this is perpetuating practices like busy homework, teaching to the test, or early school starts. We have started questioning those practices because they do not stand up to current findings and expectations.

We should have more dissonance about digital natives and learning styles. These are insidiously harmful terms because they seem to be accepted without question or doubt. They actually reflect a lazy and uncritical mindset that must be overcome before suggesting something like e-textbooks over paper ones.

All that said, the article provided good examples of the merits of e-textbooks over traditional ones. Despite these examples, the author recognised serious barriers like cost and sentiment. For example:

If digital textbooks have such a strong advantage, then it begs the question why paper textbooks are still the norm. Some say the cost of every student owning a tablet is significant, especially for low-income families.


It would be a pity if sheer sentimentality or concern for the bottom line prevents a more pervasive adoption of digital textbooks.

While we do have low income families, we should not use this as an excuse. Consider this: The cost of paper textbooks for just one year is about as much as one device, if not more. The device can be used over a few years for many classes and revisions.

The sentiment should shift to overall cost savings over a longer period of time, not in an immediate window. The evidence of the effectiveness needs to be clear to all stakeholders and cost becomes no object.

If financial cost is still a major concern, the casual reader needs to be more aware of the support that our system provides families with children attending school. There are so many scholarships, stipends, book prizes, awards, and funding programmes as to boggle the mind. (Tangential thought: Are these in an e-book somewhere?)

BTW, I also recall a poster I saw in a neighbourhood library offering free e-readers to families who needed them. The devices were donated by the US Embassy in Singapore.

Here is one more critique to rise above the debate. There is a larger issue to address and that is thinking within the textbook. The notion of the textbook is still one of control by the textbook publisher. This is fine if we want to school our kids into submission.

If we are to educate our children, we should be using every possible, logical, and reasonable resource. Textbooks, be they paper or electronic, are just one form. There are other resources that are more open, sharable, edible, and current. This is the power hinted at in the article about e-textbooks.

If we limit our debates to e-books, we constrain ourselves to the rules of traditional publishers in an arena designed for a time long past. We need to rise above and beyond that to empower teachers and learners. We need to lead by creating content, and sharing it. We need to be the publishers and this goes beyond the simple notion of e-textbooks.

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