Disappearing Textbooks: Pros And Cons Of Digital Materials In The Classroom

Boxes of textbooks from the Utah Instructional Materials in the author’s office

Technology is changing the classroom; and one of the most noticeable changes are with textbooks. Gone are the days with children walking home stoop-shouldered with the weight of books in their backpack. Those books are being replaced with digital materials.

Alan Griffin, Curriculum Content Specialist with the Utah State Board of Education said that “about 40% of the materials we are receiving from publishers are completely in digital format, or have digital components.” Griffin heads the Utah Instructional Materials Commission, which the author is part of.

The growth of digital materials has presented new issues to the Commission. Digital materials can also exacerbate what is called the Homework Gap , where students with less access and slower Internet fall behind their peers. Besides issues of digital inclusion other questions have arisen.

What’s the quality of the digital material? Does the content meet the school’s technical requirements? Is the digital information accessible to all learners? How much does it cost to license the material? Does this digital service protect the student’s privacy?

In Utah, Alan Griffin and others are working to address these questions. “We are currently working on a rewrite of our database that will incorporate many new features…we are incorporating criteria to insure that materials are accessible to all students, that they are protecting student data privacy, and that they specify platform and technical requirements.”

Included in that evaluation are what are called OER materials. OER stands for “open educational resource” which are free and openly licensed. Travis Lemon is the Math Department Chairman at American Fork Junior High School and has used OER resources for years.

Lemon said, “OER is being used more in classrooms. This is due to the higher quality and increased availability of OER materials…When teachers evaluate materials and discover that there are OER materials with just as high of quality as those produced by traditional publishers then it makes a lot of sense to go with OER.”

The benefits of OER and digital materials go beyond saving on back and shoulder pain from full backpacks. Another benefit, according to Travis Lemon, is the “cost savings that can be used to provide professional development supporting teachers.” Digital materials can also provide interactive mediums that aren’t available to print, and reach students with different learning styles and abilities.

The digital world of eMaterials does have drawbacks. Beyond the lack of quality control, these materials can violate student privacy and can be more of a hindrance than a help to students.

A four-year study of etextbooks in a university setting found that less than half of students felt comfortable learning with the textbooks and from 2012 to 2016 their feelings of competency decreased even with the rise of more digital materials in class.

Those feelings may be part to teacher support. Lemon said a drawback to OER materials was that “administrators don’t use the cost savings to invest in professional development for teachers.” The university study also echoed the need for more teacher guidance and professional development.

Curriculum and textbooks are meant as a support and can never replace the role of a teacher. Another study of etextbooks in 2013 reiterated the importance of teachers writing, “the interaction with students is more important than media rich contents.” The growth of digital materials in the classroom is accompanied by the increased need for high quality instruction.

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