Whatever Happened to Digital Textbooks?

The promise of students carrying lighter backpacks accompanied the promise technology advocates and educators made in shifting from printed to digital textbooks (also called e-books).

A few years ago, I predicted that digital textbooks would be common across school districts. While there have been some movement toward switching to digital textbooks, I was way off in my prediction.

What happened?

What are digital textbooks?

In most cases, they are digitized versions of printed texts. These digitized texts are licensed so they are sold to districts and can be downloaded from publisher websites to school, teacher, and student devices.

Promoters of digital textbooks point to the following advantages:

“Cost – Although e-readers may come with a fairly large price tag, the savings between digital and traditional textbooks adds up quickly.

Faster Searches – Instead of thumbing through pages of text, students can find the passages they are looking for with fast keyword searches.

Supplemental Information – Students have the ability to add to their knowledge warehouse by simply performing online searches for additional information as they are reading.

Environmental Friendliness – Digital textbooks save trees and never end up in landfills like traditional textbooks.”

They also underscore the reduced weight students will have to lug around. Young children and youth will have to tote only the laptop or tablet in their backpacks.

What curricular and instructional problems do digital textbooks solve?

None that I can detect. Like all textbooks, digital ones deliver the state and district curriculum that teachers are expected to teach their students at all grade levels. While boosters of digital texts promote them as ways students learn more, faster, and better I have found no evidence that students learn more or less from using digital textbooks than printed ones. If readers of this post know of such research, please let me know via your comments.

Where have digital textbooks been adopted?

While most states allow districts to use money for printed texts to be used for digital ones, larger states, such as Texas, California, and Michigan, have already moved forward in funding districts converting to digital texts.Digital texts seem to be more apparent in secondary than elementary schools although they are evident at both levels. For elementary schools, see short video on digital texts in Omaha (NE) elementary schools..

Why was my prediction so far off?

I fell for the hype about digital textbooks being cheaper and easily accessible to students and teachers without allowing for the innate conservatism of public school officials and teachers in slowly, if at all, adopting a change to a basic classroom practice, that is, using a textbook for daily lessons (see here)


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12 responses to “Whatever Happened to Digital Textbooks?

  1. David F

    Hi Larry–also, according to research by Naomi Baron (see her book, Words Onscreen), students much prefer print to digital when reading for academic study. In my own classes, I hand out paper copies of reading assignments and also post a scanned pdf to our LMS, so students can choose either (this also eliminates the “I lost my reading packet” excuse. Overwhelmingly they prefer the printed packet.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the suggestion about Naomi Baron’s book (I have not read it), David, and describing how you use digital and print in lessons.

  2. I think people failed to understand the downside of digital textbooks, at least for math, which is similar to what David describes. Typing numbers is hard. And if the kids are not going to type numbers, and are just going to write down everything on paper, then what’s the advantage of digital? Also, a lot of students really like worksheets and the sense of completion they feel in getting it done. With books, there’s always more.

    I think the research assumed that kids *use* the textbooks for research or questions and really, most of them don’t.

    Over zoom school, I started using Desmos for math activities, and it offers a lot of advantages over a worksheet–for example, they have a math tool ba. But even there, to be completely valuable you have to be able to use their sketching function, and that requires additional technology. I’m thinking of buying a set of viekks for my classroom.

    Honestly, though, I think the real issue here is that textbooks aren’t used as much as people think. They are an occasional thing. I have entire classes where I never use them.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Michelle, for your comments, particularly your experience with Desmos. Also the point you raise about usage of texts in lessons. I have not yet found any teacher surveys that document teacher usage of texts.

  3. There is also the fact that students find them a poor substitute. About 2/3 of my math students chose digital textbooks 5 years ago. Within 3 months, they all asked for printed textbooks. It was a universal response in my high school. Outside of backpack space and weight, the digital books offered no benefit and had a huge downside. They were much more difficult to use for study. My high-school stopped offering them not because teachers or administrators were resistant but because student disliked them intensely.

  4. bluecat57

    Not enough to spread around.

  5. larrycuban

    Thanks for commenting.

  6. Add in the conservatism of publishers who framed digital books as just “digitized versions of printed texts”. Too much “let’s make the digital book act as much like a paper book as possible”; not enough “if we put this on a computer what can we make it better”. Hence your (very true) comment about no problems solved.

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