Electronic Textbooks: The Good, the Bad, or the Ugly?

I think one of the hardest things for people of my generation and older to wrap their heads around is the online textbook. Sure, I read books on my Kindle and my iPad, but there’s something different about reading a textbook online. Unlike a novel or a book of popular nonfiction, I annotate my textbooks heavily. I highlight, I underline, I write in the margins. I come to “see” my textbook in my head, so that I can find the information I need quickly and direct my students to the right places. Since my AP students have in the past purchased their textbooks, they do this as well. By the end of the year, it’s obvious that their textbooks have been used and used a lot. A rainbow of colors highlight key words and concepts, scribbled notes wind their way around the corners of the printed text, sticky notes hang precariously from the edges of the pages. Of course, an online textbook changes this, and I can’t decide how I feel about it. And it’s not just me. My students are unsure as well.

Nevertheless, this is where we are headed as a school and as a larger society, so I needed to take the leap and find online textbooks for this coming year.* It ended up being easier than I thought because the two books that I like to use for AP U.S. history and AP European history already come in an eBook format, although one is a slightly more condensed version than the hardcopy. I’ve been playing around with the online textbooks over the last few weeks, and the cool thing is that along with the actual text, the publisher is really providing an entire course management system for the same price of the hardcopy text. Students can log on anywhere in the world with any device that allows Internet access. The text itself can be highlighted and annotated using small embedded sticky notes. In addition, students have easy access to the “extras” like reading comprehension quizzes and the like to check themselves. It’s true that the questions are rather simple, but it’s at least some built-in review for the students. I can even use the website to assign homework, quizzes, and tests if I so choose (although I probably won’t, and I’ll explain why in a future post). Obviously, not having to carry around a hefty tome is a plus as well, and since students can access the text on any device, there’s no convenient excuses left for forgetting one’s book and not being able to do an assignment. So yes, there’s some definite plusses to this whole electronic textbook thing.

As with anything, of course, there are many questions and perhaps some drawbacks as well. Will students comprehend and retain the same amount of information from an eBook as from a traditional hardcopy text? Will students tire more quickly reading text on a screen as opposed to a traditional book? Will students find it as easy to navigate the book on a computer as they do flipping actual pages that they can touch and feel? Will students start printing out the pages of the eBook, thereby wasting paper, printer ink, and money? How much time will I have to devote at the start of the year to getting students familiar with the eBook? What happens when the website is unavailable for some reason, and how often will this happen? How do I know if the website was truly down, or a student is just lying to get out of an assignment?

My students too have questions and concerns. Some of them already insist that they aren’t going to like reading their texts online, and a few have asked if they can purchase the hardcopy instead. In an attempt to ease some of their worry, I told them that, if the online textbooks don’t work for them, they can purchase a used hardcopy to supplement the online text. However, I’ve asked them to wait until we get through the first several units of next year’s study before they buy a hardcopy. My suspicion, or perhaps my hope, is that they will adapt quite quickly to the eBook format.

Time and experience will tell. As I begin teaching with eBooks in the fall, I’ll post more about our experiences, both the good and the not so good.

*I’ve decided to go with McGraw-Hill’s Connect Plus program. I’ll be using Brinkley’s The Unfinished Nation for AP U.S. and Sherman’s The West in the World for AP Euro.

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