To Be Digital or Not to Be Digital

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
Confucius

The debate about textbooks and the cost of textbooks has become so large that governments are getting involved. In 2009 California passed SB 48 An act to add Section 66410 to the Education Code, relating to college textbooks. This bill requires publishers of College textbooks to make the books sold to the State schools (Diversities of California, the California State universities, and the California Community College system) available in digital format by 2020.

In 2011 Florida passed SB 2120 which added similar legislation for Florida schools. Several other states have passed bills relaxing regulations on the money assigned to textbooks to allow digital content to be purchased instead of traditional printed material.

Of course, even with these rules, there are still questions concerning digital books. One question is what do the students think about Digital textbooks? Several surveys have shown that e-textbooks (e-texts) have had slow sales, in 2010 e-texts accounted for only 2-3% of textbook sales, in 2012 e-text sales had grown to only 11%. The slow growth in e-texts sales is different than other types of e-books, as Amazon announced in 2010 that it was selling more digital than print books.

With the growth in sales of fiction and nonfiction e-books coupled with advantages like lower cost, more comfortable transport (weight), and the addition of multimedia and connected content it seems like e-texts should be growing exponentially. So why aren’t they? One reason might be the availability of the reader. While I read all my entertainment books in a digital format, I rarely read them on my laptop or desktop computer. I read them on my tablet or dedicated e-ink reader. According to the 2017 Educause study ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2017 While smartphones have reached near-saturation only about 50% of the students surveyed own a tablet. The presence of pictures, multimedia and formatting make e-texts challenging to use on smartphones; therefore another reading device is needed which 50% of the students don’t have.

If the availability of “reading” devices is the primary reason for the slow adoption of e-texts by students, there is an easy solution for governments and schools wishing to encourage the transition. The schools need to provide “readers” like they provide other educational tools. However, before we run out and change regulations we should ask is the lack of “readers” is the primary reason students are not adopting e-texts?

There is plenty of evidence that suggests there are other reasons students are not adopting e-texts. The current generation of undergraduate students is digital natives. Which means they are familiar and comfortable around technology. We might expect them to flock to e-texts. However, we need to remember that schools are historically slow to change how they do things in the classroom, even if they have the money to make changes. Authors Win Shih and Martha Allen in their article Working with Generation‐D: adopting and adapting to cultural learning and change point out that while the current students are digital natives. The students have not grown up with digital technology in their educational environment. Therefore the slow adoption of e-texts could be the students wish to stick with what they know.

Another interesting thing is that students confidence in their ability to use e-texts effectively has decreased over time. In 2012 60% of surveyed students felt they could effectively use e-texts while in 2016 only 44% said they could effectively use e-texts. (deNoyelles, A. and Raible, J. Exploring the Use of E-Textbooks in Higher Education: A Multiyear Study, EDUCAUSE Review, Monday, October 9, 2017) This decrease in comfort is unusual since students comfort with technology should be increasing as students grow up surrounded by more and more technology.

Where this decrease in comfort is coming from is an interesting question. A possible explanation could be the increased interactive and multimedia content in e-texts. In addition to searching, highlighting, and bookmarking features, e-texts have started to include features to ask questions, annotations, and chat with fellow students and faculty. All of these connected functions are in addition to the multimedia and linked content.

As I have written about previously (Shh I’m hunting (for) Digital Natives) Digital Natives while comfortable with technology do not have a deep understanding of how it works. Many faculty don’t understand this and fearful of looking foolish in front of their students don’t use, demonstrate, and model the educational technology used in their class. Because of this lack of training student might feel like they don’t understand how they should be using the e-texts.

Alternatively, since the use of e-texts has increased 24% over the same period as the students’ comfort has decreased
(deNoyelles, A. and Raible, J.Exploring the Use of E-Textbooks in Higher Education: A Multiyear Study, EDUCAUSE Review, Monday, October 9, 2017) , we might be seeing the Dunning-Kruger Effect . Early on in the adoption of e-texts, the students had so little self-knowledge about the use of e-texts they had no ability to judge their lack of skill and knowledge accurately. As time passed and the students gained experience with the e-texts they began to understand how much they didn’t know about the use of the e-text. More research is needed here.

While schools and governments have been quick to support e-texts for all there advantages, lowers cost, ease of portability, interactive and multimedia tools, and several (often incompletely implemented) accessibility features. Most of these groups have failed to look at the user population, the students. Recent studies from groups like Educause has shown that the ownership of dedicated reader devices like tablets has plateaued and may even be decreasing among college students. Additionally, while students are comfortable with technology the limited use of e-texts in K-12 means that students are more comfortable with regular print texts.

If we wish to continue with the increased adoption of e-texts we need to focus on working collaboratively across the whole of K-16. Students need to be comfortable and familiar with e-texts before they start college if we want e-texts to be used generally throughout college. To increase the successes of e-texts in education faculty also need to use and model e-texts in their classrooms so that students understand how to use them. Lastly, schools need to develop strategies to help students select and acquirer devices that will let the students get the most out of the e-text. Most importantly we need to remember e-texts will only work if the end user, the student, finds them helpful, compelling, and affordable.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

2 thoughts on “To Be Digital or Not to Be Digital

  1. Pingback: Pixels or Ink – The Teaching Cyborg

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