Goodbye to heavy backpacks?: Hello, e-textbooks

E-textbooks may soon lessen a student's burden

Published: Saturday, Dec. 22 2012 1:20 p.m. MST

The next school icon to be tossed on the education bone heap may be the hardcover textbook. Slide rules and typewriters have long been extinct, and chalkboards have become an endangered species threatened by interactive whiteboards.

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The next school icon to be tossed on the education bone heap may be the hardcover textbook. Slide rules and typewriters have long been extinct, and chalkboards have become an endangered species threatened by interactive whiteboards.

Someday soon, students might carry a single digital tablet instead of lugging around a backpack full of books.

Along with reducing backaches, the shift to e-textbooks holds bright promise for decreasing education costs and improving learning. The United States spends more than $7 billion a year on textbooks, but many students are still stuck with old texts full of outdated material. Schools could save $250 per student each year by making the move to digital texts, according to the Federal Communications Commission, and the interactive e-books can be updated continuously instead of being replaced.

Stars aligning

Earlier this year, Apple announced a partnership with the three major textbook publishers in the U.S. to develop interactive textbooks for its iPad digital tablet. Within five years, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants U.S. schools to convert exclusively to digital textbooks, citing the need to keep up academically with other nations — like Korea, where digital learning environments are being adapted at a quick pace.

"What we are seeing is an opportunity to replace textbooks with something better — learning tools that are more colorful, exciting, intuitive and interactive," said Bob Slavin, an education researcher at Maryland's Johns Hopkins University.

But, home access to the Internet and digital devices for all students will be sticking points in making the switch, Slavin added.

Apple says its digital textbooks are designed for the way students learn today. They provide a full-screen experience filled with interactive diagrams, photos and videos, self-correcting chapter reviews and search options. Partners in creating the e-textbooks are Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw Hill and Pearson, the three major K-12 textbook publishers in the United States.

The digital textbooks let students learn by surfing through content, clicking for more information on topics that capture their interest. That's the way kids learn best, Slavin said.

Take a look

At the Apple website, you can see demos of e-text interactive features. A map of Mozambique's Goronogosa National Park responds as a student touches various areas, showing photos and giving written details about riverine valleys, alluvial fans, flood plains and dry midlands.

A biology e-book's section on leaf structure lets students swipe text to highlight definitions and important passages. That material gets stored in the form of flashcards for later study. A diagram of leaf structure zooms in for microscopic study. Self-correcting chapter reviews in the e-texts let students test their knowledge by labeling images, answering multiple choice questions and matching image thumbnails to maps definitions or maps.

Students will be able to connect with other learners through online learning groups, Slavin said. And, teachers can project e-textbook videos and photos onto the digital whiteboards that are replacing their chalkboards, then "write" on them from control panels on their desks. The e-texts will make it easier for teachers to individualize instruction, too.

"Why would you hold everyone to doing the same thing, if that's not what they need?" Slavin asked, touting the power of digital textbooks to personalize education for fast or slow learners.

As digital material is incorporated in classrooms and homework assignments, the role of teachers will change. They won't need to stand before students reciting material that can be covered more effectively in other ways, making time for more important work.

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