Thursday, April 19, 2012

Electronic Textbooks: Why The Rush ?

The race to replace traditional textbooks with electronic versions is on. Although electronic textbooks have been most carefully tested in university students, the Obama Administration is advocating their use in elementary and secondary schools. In February, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recommended that states allow school districts to spend money once reserved for textbooks on Kindles, Nooks, and iPads. As educational tools, electronic textbooks offer the promise of easy updates, cost savings compared with print, flexibility, and integrated features such as video, hyperlinks, and software that allows students to collaborate. However, electronic textbook sales  have not followed the upward trend of e-books, and scientific studies of students reading and learning from e-readers suggest caution.


Recent research shows that college students learn equally well from e-readers or printed text , but electronic textbooks carry a cost in efficiency. Reading electronic textbooks takes longer, on average, than reading print, and many students report higher levels of fatigue upon completion . The source of this cost is unclear, but the effect is strong enough that the majority of college students prefer traditional print books when offered a choice. [snip].

Meanwhile, experiments with children in early grades more often show e-books equivalent to or even superior to traditional print. Younger children are offered simpler, narrative texts and are not asked to study and remember the content. The features that e-book readers make possible seem like an obvious boon for e-textbooks. Surely students will learn more if they can, for example, click a hyperlink that defines an unfamiliar word, or if they can use a mouse to rotate a complex molecule in three dimensions. But years of research on computer learning shows that these opportunities can backfire. [snip].

Electronic textbooks do offer substantial advantages over traditional printed text, such as the opportunity to make timely updates, adapt to learner preferences, and embed multimedia and learning activities—it's one thing to read about the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it's quite another to see a video of it. However, research shows that students likely do not interact with electronic textbooks as they do with traditional print, and the broader research base on multimedia learning indicates that considerable care must go into the design of special features to ensure that they augment learning rather than detract from it. There is no indication that publishers are investing the time and hard work required to leverage this information into a new generation of electronic textbooks. Rather, it seems that most are taking the pedagogical devices from print books and putting them in digital format, with little evidence that they positively affect learning.


David B. Daniel1 (1), Daniel T. Willingham (2)
(1) Department of Psychology, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA 22801, USA.
(2) Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904, USA.

Science / 30 March 2012 /  Vol. 335 no. 6076 pp. 1569-1571  /
DOI: 10.1126/science.335.6076.1569 

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