Digital textbooks are all the rage these days as students and school districts clamor to get the iPad, download and fill it with $15 textbooks, and rid themselves of the heavy traditional versions once and for all. But digital textbooks are not the present – or even the future – of education. Here’s why:
1. School districts still save money by using textbooks.
Yes, digital textbooks are far cheaper than the physical variety. But various other costs – chief among them the price of an iPad and the need to periodically repurchase digital versions – drive the digital price far higher. One study found that an average school would spend $215 per student per year when following a digital textbook strategy. This compares with a far lower cost of $90 per student when only traditional textbooks are used. Although some schools with sufficient resources will surely still jump at the chance to make backpacks lighter and lessons more interactive, the significant costs associated with a digital program will prevent most districts from following this course.
2. Students make money off of textbooks.
At the high school and college levels, textbook purchases are usually the responsibility of the student and not the school. This system has caused many to speculate that digital textbooks would catch on most quickly here since students are far more likely to be tech savvy, iPad-friendly, and willing to do away with the textbooks of old. But students, just like school districts, are unlikely to find any financial benefits from digital textbook use. They expire, after all, while the traditional variety can be resold on a site like Half.com to recoup much of the initial expense. Any college kid looking to take out student loans for graduate school is going to want to pursue the most cost-efficient option.
3. Textbooks of all kinds – both traditional and otherwise – are going the way of the dodo bird.
The two above points illustrate that digital textbooks are currently not economically viable. But we can certainly expect them to drop in price over time – an expectation that has many people heralding digital textbooks as the classroom staple of the future. Such a belief ignores the fact that textbooks of all kinds are currently experiencing a slow decline.
Before the internet age, when teachers had a more difficult time acquiring classroom material, the textbook was a necessary instructional tool. These days, however, the ready availability of articles, stories, journals, videos, and assignment ideas on the web provide numerous alternative ways to teach a given topic. Teachers have consequently found themselves using textbooks less and less. We can only expect this trend to continue.
Sometime in the near future (probably in the next 10 or so years), an iPad-like device will surely become standard in school classrooms. Students will use it to work, research, and communicate with each other. But by that time, the textbook, in all likelihood, will be long dead – both in its digital and physical forms. There’s no question that the age of the digital textbook has arrived. But whether it will truly have an educational impact – in the present or in the future – still remains to be seen.
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