Are Digital Textbooks Really Better?

Textbooks are going digital

My research shows that this has been a trend for a while now, but I just recently became aware of it through NPR and our local television stations. As a purveyor of online learning delivery, I feel that I should be all in favor of this move. However, I feel myself doubtful about the benefits of it. I am going to try and present a balanced assessment of the issue and hope that we can discuss and clarify the pros and cons.

Digital Devices Are More Expensive Than Printed Textbooks

The general perception is that textbooks are less expensive than digital devices. I do not Dollar signknow what school systems pay for printed textbooks, but eBook readers, like the Kindle, will set you back nearly $200, and full tablets, like iPads and Android tablets, run a few hundred more than that to start. However, a single student needs a math book, a history book, an English literature book – you get the idea. The price adds up for all of those individual printed texts, while the digital device holds all of these and much more. So we get a whole library that each student can hold in his hand for the price of a few paper textbooks.

Students Will Lose the Devices

Trash binStudents lose things. I can’t remember how many winter coats and gloves we bought for our kids when they were in school. Losing their digital device is doubly troublesome.

  • In one loss they have misplaced their entire set of school books.
  • While the device is possibly cheaper than the entire set of textbooks, the replacement value of one book is much less.

But there is another side to this. It is a common perception that students do not value their textbooks. However, how many kids lose their hand-held gaming device or their personal cell phone? It is very likely, in my mind, that students will value these devices very highly and take better care of them than they do with their printed books.

Many Students Do Not Have Internet Access at Home

This is the argument that I have heard most frequently against switching to digital devices for student textbooks. In my opinion, this is the weakest of all of the arguments against The Internetdigital books. I have several digital books on my Android tablet, and my ability to read them does not rely upon a connection to the internet or any network. All of the eBook readers of which I am aware have the ability to store the entire book in local storage on the device. Therefore, while students will need internet access to initially install the book on the device (a task that will certainly take place inside the school facility where internet is available) they will have no need for continued access to open and read these books.

Students Will Use the Device for Video Game Playing

This is what I call the old fogey argument. “Those kids will just spend all of their time Old Fogeyplaying video games and other time wasting activities.” I have to admit that I am a bit on the “old fogey” side myself. I have said numerous time to my kids and their friends that I do not understand what enjoyment they get from these video games.

However, this point dovetails into an earlier point about devices being lost. Few school-age children put much value in their math or history book, but they will cherish this fancy new digital device that allows them to do things other than just homework. So they do install Angry Birds ©. As long as they also read their assignment and complete their homework, is that so bad?

Yes, there will be challenges, such as keeping students from playing games at their desk when they are supposed to be listening to the teacher, but this can also be a positive aspect of integrating learning into the other half of life.


As I said at the beginning, it is not my goal here to come to a conclusion about the issue of using digital textbooks in school. My hope is that we can engage in a discussion of this topic. I look forward to learning from you things that never entered my mind as I thought about whether to be for or against the issue.

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2 Responses to Are Digital Textbooks Really Better?

  1. Cyanne Smith says:

    Smartphones–iphones, androids–are already allowed in many schools, owned by the students, for their personal use, so the idea of transitioning school books into digital form on a mobile device is not such a stretch. Most students keep track of their androids, possibly because they are frequently using them. I will mention, however, that many teachers find cell phone activity problematic when attempting to teach a class. Some teachers have the power to control this situation by not allowing cell phones in their classroom, others have found ways to use it as a successful educational tool. But, back to the topic…
    Is the idea for schools to issue a Kindle, iPad or other mobile device to each student–to be returned at the end of the school year? Or is each student responsible for buying his own mobile device? If it is school issued, will the student be allowed to take it home each night or over the weekend? I feel its success will depend on how this idea is implemented.
    I can visualize Kindle or iPad theft (how many are motivated to steal text books?), mobile device destruction–such as dropping, stepping on, driving over (most books can survive that), frequenting inappropriate web sites (what school wants to be perceived as providing easier ways to access?)
    Would this mean a close monitoring of each student’s mobile device? Turn in weekly, to the computer department and check content–or random checks? Would this also mean that the mobile device would have to remain in the school, to prevent the potential of loss, destruction, or theft? Would this also mean no internet access? No internet limits quick easy use of other digital resources.
    So, on the bus ride home after school, some devilish characters decide to do some relatively harmless torment, scare you a bit and hold your iPad out the window, threatening to drop it. All I’m saying is, these mobile devices better be manufactured as disposable– and cheap enough to replace.

  2. Rich school districts can afford to implement e-textbooks on tablets, while poor school districts cannot. Low income schools are less likely to implement an e-textbook program than to pay for teachers or basic classroom supplies.

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