Counting the Cost of Digital Textbooks


Recently U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for the nation’s schools to move as quickly as possible away from print textbooks toward digital ones. “Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete,” he said. In his remarks to the National Press Club on October 2, Duncan explained that moving toward digital textbooks is not just about keeping up with the times, but rather it is about keeping up with the world. South Korea, a country that regularly surpasses the U.S. in educational performance, has announced a plan to go all digital by 2015. “The world is changing,” Duncan declared. “This has to be where we go as a country.”

Should schools ditch paper and glue and go all digital?

Of course the tech-nerd in me says, “Obviously we should go digital. Digital stuff is cool.” But the cool factor aside, I believe that going all digital would be a big mistake.

First, I have to confess to being extremely skeptical when an educational policy-maker announces that more and better technology is the answer to our educational woes. It is the height of myopic wrongheadedness to assert that if we go digital, we will be able to solve the vexing problems facing the American education system, which by all accounts is terribly flawed.

Also, has Mr. Duncan considered the cost of going digital? I’m not speaking of the cost in dollars here either. I’m thinking about the cost to our children’s ability to think. There seems to be a real debate taking place in our culture about whether children’s immersion the world of digital devices and environments makes them smarter or dumber. At the very least, the jury is still out. Maybe it’s too soon to tell. Or then again maybe we already know.

In 1985 Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, asserted that television was dumbing people down, ruining their ability to think and devastating public discourse. He wrote that we had transitioned from the Age of Typography to the Age of Television, and the dominant mode of discourse had swung from rational, sequential thought to mindless, image-based entertainment. The medium always affects the message. Now that we have moved beyond the Age of Television to the Digital Age, we should be asking the same questions Postman asked: how does the medium of communication affect the message itself? If we and our children abandon the printed word, will we be better able to think and better able to learn? At the very least, we should counsel caution about embracing digital textbooks rather than embracing them with reckless abandon. When our children are immersed in the printed word and trained by teachers to think using books, they are shaped by a certain conditioning that prepares them for rational thought, sustained concentration, and critical thinking. But immersing them into a world of flitting images, interactive environments, and information overload seems better suited to training inattention and lack of concentration.

And then there are the supposed practical benefits of going all digital: savings, preparation for the digital world, flexibility. However, switching over to all-digital textbooks would undoubtedly be very expensive, even factoring in the savings that might accrue from not having to purchase replacement textbooks in the future. Will students be better prepared for the digital world outside of school if they are immersed in digital textbooks in school? Why can’t students still be prepared for a digital world even when toting books around in their backpacks? What if they are taught to think, to read critically, to turn pages and analyze the worldview of the author? Won’t they be better able to function in the real world after the fruit of that kind of training? From what I know about children and teenagers, they will have no problem becoming proficient at the digital stuff even when they have their noses in books at school.

I am proud to say that books – real books with paper and ink and glue – are an integral part of a student’s education at Regents Academy. Students enter other worlds through their pages, get carried away on the wings of a soaring imagination through them, and learn to think critically while reading and studying them. I use a Kindle and a smart phone. I surf the web every day. You can be pro-technology and also pro-book. I like to think I’m both. But there is a hallowed place for books that cannot be replaced by 1’s and 0’s on a glowing screen.

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