Against (Only) Digital Textbooks

Lessons from my younger daughter.

September 24, 2017

The second installment of Quartz's four-part series The Vanishing University claims that “college textbooks are going the way of Netflix."

Do you believe it?

The authors, Allison Schrager and Amy X. Wang, write,

"On average, US college students end up spending about $1,200 on books a year... For the next generation of students, all those woes may be as obsolete as cassettes and Blu-Ray.”

The article makes the claim that paper textbooks will disappear due to reasons of cost, quality and student demand.

On the quality side, digital textbooks can " evolve—continuously, seamlessly” - as they are updated with new and topical information.  Digital textbooks also have "fewer words, more interactive exercises, videos, and animation — which also means less reading.”

On the cost side, students can subscribe to access to an interactive digital textbook for less money (say $90) than it costs to buy a traditional paper textbook (say $250).

Finally, Schrager and Wang wonder if today’s students - who have only every experienced Google and iPhone’s - would prefer interactive digital environments over static paper pages. They write that, "Students today already learn differently than their parents did...They expect content that responds to them.

Before I argue that completely jettisoning paper textbooks for interactive and adaptive learning environments is a terrible idea, let me first own up to my own biases.

By all rights, I should be a fan of digital-only learning. Not only is “digital” in my job title, I personally will only buy digital books. Try to give me a paper book and I will give it back to you. The only books that I want are one’s that I can read on my Kindle (eyes) or my iPhone (eyes and ears).

I love digital books.

But I still think that digital only is a bad idea.  The reason for my reluctance about a full print-to-digital transition is that I have a kid who learns better with paper.

My younger daughter, a first-year college student, made the decision to purchase (and rent) the paper version of her textbooks. She retains information better if she can interact with the physical book. There is something in her brain that does better with being able to move through the pages of a book with her fingers.

My older daughter is fully on the digital bandwagon. She is a second-year college student, and all her course materials are digital.  She wants everything to be available on her laptop screen, as she likes to highlight and take notes and search with her keyboard.

Go figure. Two kids. Same genetics. Raised in the same house. Went to the same schools. Had many of the same teachers. And yet, two totally different styles of learning.

Are digital cheerleaders (like myself) actually taking the time to ask learners about what they actually want?

Could it be that we should be doing everything that we can to retain the option for analog?

Given that there are great free and low-cost print textbooks from OpenStax, is the entire digital is more cost effective argument invalid

How do you, and your kids, like to learn?



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