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eTextbook Use

Posted on Oct 25, 2012

In an effort to increase the technological literacy of students and to improve learning outcomes, President Obama recently set a goal to have students using exclusively e-textbooks delivered on tablet computers. Even more recently, Julie Lawrence, writing for Education News, reported that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discussed “what he thinks the classroom of the future will look like – and one thing he doesn’t see is a heavy paper textbook.”

Drawing inspiration from South Korea, a country that outperforms the United States when it comes to student achievement, supporters of the e-textbook movement argue that “a comprehensive shift to immersive, online learning experiences could engage students in a way that a textbook never could,” while also delivering benefits to districts and teachers in the form of cost savings and increased flexibility in curriculum.

As far as the students are concerned, e-textbooks would not be limited by what can be displayed in print. An e-textbook could include interactive features, quizzes, and videos, while also including standard features like highlighting, underlining, and commenting. Additionally, as many students will tell you, print textbooks have a tendency to be bulky and, at times, challenging to transport when you have to carry more than one or two.

It is believed that school districts could see savings by utilizing e-textbooks because, while tablet computers can be somewhat expensive, it follows that the rights to use textbooks should be cheaper, seeing as how publishers would not be obligated to provide physical print resources to schools. Furthermore, Lawrence says that “using e-textbooks allows schools to view curriculum not as a cudgel, but as a list of suggestions that they, for themselves, get to decide how to implement.” Instead of being forced to stand by and utilize the material that exists in whatever textbook a district provides for a class, e-textbooks allow curriculum to become more customizable, potentially allowing districts to even build the textbook that will best suit teachers.

A major question, though, is whether or not students will accept e-textbooks. As of right now, the only students making extensive use of e-textbooks are college students, and according to Brian Browdie, writing for NY Daily News, “Books published electronically may be growing in popularity, but some students say for textbooks they still prefer print.”

A recent study involving five universities and thousands of students, “e-textbooks can be ‘clumsy’ and difficult to use.” The main point of contention seemed to be ease of use, because students liked the idea of not needing to carry heavy textbooks and the potential of saving money. Despite the potential benefits, if e-textbooks are not accessible to students, then the widespread use of e-textbooks may actually prove detrimental to students.

 Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

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    1. Doug Levin     October 25, 2012  5:14 pm Reply

      Last month, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released a major report entitled, “Out of Print: Reimagining the K-12 Textbook in a Digital Age.” See:

      The report highlights the sea change underway in the multi-billion dollar U.S. K-12 instructional materials market enabled by recent technology and intellectual property rights innovations. With a focus on the ultimate impact on student learning, including for students with disabilities, the report provides examples of lessons learned from recent digital and open (OER) content initiatives by leading states and school districts and offers comprehensive recommendations for government, industry, and educators to ensure that the inevitable shift to digital instructional materials improves student achievement and engagement and efficiently uses scarce resources.

      Coupled with the October release of SETDA’s State Education Policy Center (, which details state instructional materials policies – among other topics – vis-a-vis digital practices, we are committed to accelerating the shift from one-size-fits-all print policies to more flexible, interactive, and effective digital policies. It is vital that education institutions commit to developing a clear vision and plan for better serving all students through the provision of high-quality instructional materials in a digital age.