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4 pros and cons of using digital textbooks

4 pros and cons of using digital textbooks

4 min read
  • Phones & technology
  • The science of learning

The “digital age” has long since been upon us and made its mark in the education world. The temptation for schools to replace traditional printed textbooks with electronic ones is at an all-time high.

Whilst students may have previously hidden their tablets from their teachers, many are now being encouraged to bring and use them as their reading medium. But does this actually benefit our students’ learning?

What are the pros of using digital textbooks?

Ed tech proponents suggest that digital textbooks are more than just another way to deliver academic content. They say they have the ability to create a more engaging, interactive and pleasant learning experience. So let’s have a look at two potential benefits of digital books…

1. Facilitate healthy development

With the average hard-copy book weighing between 2-3lbs, a student could be carrying an extra 9-15lbs on their backs on a regular school day. In contrast, the only additional weight of digital textbooks is the electronic device used to read the material (and even then, that’s only at the start).

Selecting this option prevents students from developing bad posture and back pains associated with heavy backpacks.

2. Access to new features

Digital textbooks have many valuable features that are not found in traditional printed textbooks. Common features such as inbuilt dictionaries and embedded external links allow students to gain a more complete understanding of important content.

Some digital textbooks also allow users to change font size and style, which is especially beneficial for students with Special Education Needs (SEN). For example, it can be vastly helpful for students with Dyslexia, who often find it easier to read material in fonts such as Open Dyslexic, or can allow visually impaired students to use screen readers.

Ultimately, the interactive features from digital textbooks can put students more in control of their learning. This helps them develop confidence, which in turn boosts their motivation to learn.

What are the cons of using digital textbooks?

While digital textbooks offer a good deal of benefits, they have their shortcomings. Let’s take a look at these together…

1. Source of distraction

Let’s be honest: any device with an internet connection has the potential for distraction. As digital textbooks need to be accessed via an electronic device, using them opens the door for students to engage in other activities on the internet during class. This sounds like a recipe for disaster if students do not have enough self-control.

Unfortunately, a large survey study in Quebec found that students could not resist the temptation of texting their peers and surfing the web when tablets were introduced as a study tool in the classroom. This means that you must take extra care with digital textbooks, as they can easily divert attention and compromise student learning.

2. Decreased comprehension

While most students think they read better from content presented in a digital format, new research suggests otherwise. A recent study found that students read digital book extracts significantly quicker than printed book extracts, but are much better at identifying key points and relevant information from reading in print compared to reading digitally. This means a trade-off likely exists between speed and comprehension.

The researchers concluded that digital textbooks need to be approached cautiously as they prompt students to read faster. This subsequently reduces their understanding of salient content, which hinders their learning.

Help your staff understand how their students’ memory works, and how to adapt their teaching strategies to it.

How to approach the future of digital reading successfully

Given certain advantages print textbooks have over digital textbooks, some might feel it’s best only to use print reading in the classroom. However, research has demonstrated that reading digitally is now a ubiquitous part of students’ lives, especially after the Covid pandemic forced schools to adapt to digital remote learning.

So, it would be unrealistic to ask them to shift from digital to print for all of their academic reading. This makes it important for teachers to approach the future of digital reading with knowledge on how to maximise its benefits and circumvent its drawbacks. Here are some tips that may be useful…

Walk students through the capabilities and features of digital textbooks

As you begin a new class, spend some time walking your students through the digital content that they will use throughout the year. Demonstrate how to highlight passages and make annotations. You can also point out the general layout of the content, like where to find important headings.

This will allow students to learn what features are available so they will be inclined to personalise their digital textbooks to enhance their reading.

Slow down your students’ reading

With digital textbooks, students tend to skim and retain less information. You can turn this around by giving them guiding questions for each reading task and encouraging them to take notes for each section. By providing students with clear reading objectives, their reading time will become more intentional, which will boost their learning in the long run by helping them process the information more deeply.

Create a dedicated classroom policy

Explain to your students what the research says on distractions and work with them to create ground rules for electronic usage in the classroom. A policy example may be only allowing laptops when they are needed for reading or completing class work online. This will prevent students from becoming distracted from learning.

Final thoughts

Digital and print reading both have their benefits and drawbacks. But with technology making huge advances, it is good to be aware of the pros and cons. We hope you can help your students adapt to this new wave of tehcnology using the above suggestions.

Want to find out more about creative uses of technology in the classroom? Check out our blog on the potential uses of ChatGPT for Retrieval Practice.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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