Write Stuff – E-Class is in Session

When it comes to reading, the lowly textbook doesn’t get much love. Except for the occasional art history tome full of gorgeous images, textbooks tend to be the dull cousins in the literary family: reliable, but not much fun. Yet just like the bestselling paperbacks on your store shelves, textbooks aren’t immune to the digital wave sweeping the publishing world?and those changes could alter everything from course tuition to the way you learn.

General opinion holds that academia has been slow to adopt digital books. But that tide is turning swiftly, as this Citizen’s Voice article notes. According to Tom Stanton, director of communications at McGraw-Hill Education, the company plans a digital version of all its textbooks in the future.

They aren’t the only ones embracing digital. The Toronto District School Board is phasing out paper textbooks. The board is ?looking at moving to digital textbooks by 2015 in order to cut costs and to provide better information.? The State of California has similar plans, hoping to ?develop digital open-source textbooks for high school math and science classes where students can sign them out for free at public schools across the state.?

But while digital might work fine for popular fiction and magazines, textbooks bring a different set of challenges.

For instance, ask students how they use their textbooks and you’ll get a range of preferences more nuanced than stellar spectra. To highlight or not to highlight. To resell or keep forever (you never know when you’ll want to look up French absolutism again). Yet the trend, especially in post-secondary texts, is to access books through a subscription. When the subscription expires, so does your access to the material?and, unless you’ve saved them separately, all your highlights and notations too.

Many digital texts also limit the number of times a student can print them, so It’s not the perfect solution for disorganized students who are constantly misplacing course materials.

On the financial front, it might be tempting to assume that digital texts will mean lower tuition. After all, e-books don’t carry the same production costs as paper, so schools are sure to pass the savings on to students. Right? Well, maybe. Chris Besse, a senior vice-president with Nelson, recently explained to the Toronto Sun that ?only about 10% of the cost is actually paper, print and bind of the book. About 90% of the cost is developing the content, so there’s not a lot of saving there.?

Still, those are mere quibbles compared to the bigger question about e-books and education: does digital reading change the way we learn? Are we simply changing the form of textbooks?or are those textbooks changing us?

Students read traditional paper textbooks in a fairly linear fashion. One chapter follows another, with material building on what came before. Digital textbooks offer a different learning experience. Hyperlinks can lead students from text to graphics and even to online material in a non-linear way. For younger students especially, the implications are enormous.

Maryanne Wolf, the John DiBiaggio Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, explained some of those concerns in a New York Times Room for Debate segment. Wolf reminds us of ?what Proust called the heart of reading?when we go beyond the author’s wisdom and enter the beginning of our own.?

The full segment is a valuable read, but the essence is that digital reading alters the way we decode and comprehend text and, potentially, short-circuits young readers? ability to read deeply. As Wolf puts it, ?children’s nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information.?

That doesn’t bode well for the critical thinking required in higher education. It could also alter the course syllabi of the future. As today’s kindergarten students hit university, how radically will course content?and textbooks?need to evolve to meet their learning style?

For academic publishers, the digital medium could also mean a complete overhaul in the way textbooks and other materials are designed. It might even necessitate different versions of textbooks, with digital copies assembled differently than their linear-centric paper versions. Cost would surely be a factor, potentially driving prices even higher than in the text-only world.

The news isn’t all bad. Like any other technological shift, there are pros and cons. Digital textbooks are light, portable, and getting easier to access every day, whether on laptops, smart phones, tablets, or dedicated readers. Financial barriers are falling too. Some schools are paving the way by providing in-class e-readers to students, and the American Library Association reports that 85 per cent of libraries now provide free Wi-Fi.

Only time will tell whether digital textbooks offer the same advantages as their paper counterparts?and whether bulky student backpacks are consigned to the history books.