Write Stuff – Learning By Demand

From the very first day you stepped into kindergarten, you probably noticed that school is all about rules. Rules for behaviour, rules for lessons. Rules about what you have to read. Now, there are even rules about how to read, with some universities insisting on e-textbooks over paper. Has the education rule book gone too far?

So far the shift is limited to a handful of universities in the United States. But the incentive behind it is financial and, since money has a way of ruling decisions, It’s a safe bet that this trend will spread.

There are several obvious benefits to e-textbooks. Some of those pluses apply to e-books in general, but others are specific to school texts. For starters, there can be bulk cost savings. As this USA Today article notes, the e-textbook program at Indiana University lets the school negotiate far lower prices with publishers. How much lower? Some texts can cost ?about half as much as . . . anywhere else.? That can translate to a huge difference in the overall price of a degree.

E-texts also mean that students don’t have to lug heavy books around campus?or find places to store them in small dorms or other shared housing. And since e-textbooks can easily be updated to stay current (unlike paper texts), students will be studying the latest information in their field. Knowing that a student is getting the latest and greatest version can ease the pain of paying as much as $150 for a single textbook.

All those pluses, though, don’t really matter if e-textbooks undermine the very reason students go to school in the first place: to learn. So far, research shows that when it comes to understanding and retaining information, e-textbooks just don’t make the grade.

It’s one thing to read an e-book or magazine for pleasure. We don’t need to remember the plot or characters? names once we reach the end. On the Internet, we can look up travel details or shopping sites, but most of that information is in brief, compact form?unlike an engineering or English textbook.

Long-form text that needs to be understood and retained requires a different style of reading altogether, and paper is still the form best suited to that. As fancy as e-book options may get, with interactivity, online links, and the ability to highlight or make notes in the text, none of that will matter if students simply can’t absorb the information as well as they can with a paper book.

The difference seems to lie in the physical nature of print books. Not the smell or feel of them, but the geography of them. The way a reader always knows exactly where they are in the landscape of the text; how close to the beginning or end, and how much room a particular concept or idea takes up within the entire text.

In a Toronto Star article, Daniel Wigdor, a computer science professor at U of T, notes that It’s the ?spatial memory? that paper books provide that sets them apart from using an e-reader. E-texts don’t provide the same types of physical cues that let readers orient themselves within the text, and ?endlessly scrolling through pages can be overwhelming, distracting and slow.? That lack of spatial grounding can be even worse when You’re ploughing through a 500-page science textbook.

The same article reports on the findings of a UK study in which researchers found that ?participants . . . needed ?repeated exposure and rehearsal? of on-screen material in order to grasp the same information.?

It’s understandable that universities want to lower costs, especially when it comes to textbooks. But cost-cutting efforts shouldn’t come at the expense of one of the most fundamental tools in the learning experience. In some pilot programs, like the one at Indiana University, students don’t have a choice. The cost for their e-textbooks comes straight from their bursar accounts.

Since It’s not uncommon for students to end up printing large sections of those e-texts themselves, the cost of ink and paper can quickly eat up (or exceed) any cost savings, especially when the price difference between paper and digital texts isn’t that large.

There are many, many benefits to e-books. But It’s a mistake to assume that they translate to all types of texts in every environment. There may come a day when today’s toddlers, raised on e-books and kid-friendly apps, converge on campuses with nary a paper book in sight. Until then, though, students should have a choice in the way they want to learn.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).

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