Op-Ed: Digital Textbooks are Better Than Paper Textbooks

“Kids must use paper texts. Period.” the teacher said to me.

“Why? “What is it that makes paper superior to digital texts?”

She then led me onto a long litany of reasons why students need paper texts:

  • They are tactile: Student need to feel the book and the pages.
  • They can underline the words.
  • They can point to the words.
  • They can turn the pages.
  • There is a noise the the page turns.

Her arguments, no matter how passionate were based on HER experience with reading, not with students. It was about how SHE learned to read, decades ago. It wasn’t about how students today experience reading. She had no idea that most of those can be done on an text reader.

For adults of a certain age, the reading experience is intimately tied to the physical act of reading, the holding of the book, the turning of the page, the smell of the paper. How can students possibly learn to read and later enjoy reading, if the physical experience is lacking? Why when I was a kid…

In the digital age, most information, including the information students receive, is delivered via screen: laptop, tablet, or smart phone. Less information is delivered by paper textbooks, maps, or workbooks. (Ask any teenager when was the last time they read a PAPER newspaper.)

While I will grant that there are tactile sensory properties to paper texts that screen based texts cannot provide, there are inherent advantages to digital that simply leave traditional print in the the dustbin of technology history.

Using Apple’s iBooks as an example for all digital readers, it is easy to create a cursory list of things that ereaders can do that a paper text cannot:

  • The ability to change font size for students that have sight issues.
  • Built in dictionaries where students no longer need to go look up a difficult word in a separate book. With a control-click, the word is defined, a thesaurus gives the antonym, and a link is created to a Wikipedia page. The dictionary can also read aloud the word for the student, assuring proper pronunciation.
  • The ability to read aloud the passage. This is a boon for visually impaired students or students that are learning to read or even second language learners.
  • Ability to add notes, bookmarks and annotations. While you might say, yes, a regular text can do that, a regular text cannot add, with ease, an audio note, or a picture note, or a hyperlink to an online article about that topic.

While each one is not a singularly compelling reason to use a digital text over a paper text, combined they make an irrefutable argument of digital texts superiority, as much as Gutenberg’s movable type was superior to wood blocks or vellum scrolls. ebooks have the ability to embed videos, audios, interactive graphs and slideshows.

A printed History textbook can explain about Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech and maybe show a picture. An eHistory textbook book can PLAY the speech. Students can see the crowds , hears his words. The abstract becomes real in the digital world. You simply cannot do that in a paper world.

There have been efforts lately, mostly by older researchers and those with limited understanding of how today’s student’s get and share information, to pooh-pooh screen time and electronic texts. Some studies suggest that students reading from screens do not learn as much as they do from printed books.

These studies all point out however that students are distracted by “other things”on the screen. In other words, the studies are not looking at the ebook reader itself, but rather the behavior of the student.

I don’t suppose my teacher friend will change her mind about ebooks. There is an old adage that we teach as we were taught. She, sadly, is no exception to that rule.

That is unfortunate, because students today have much richer, deeper experience awaiting them inside the pages of digital texts and her students will miss out on them all because of tradition and trying to cling to a world that no longer exists.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback. Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.