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MSPnet Blog: “Digital texts: What do you see? What do you think?”

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posted September 6, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

Across the country, states are moving to digital content, though tastes are evolving , so that the “coming thing” may be a market analogue to “personalized curriculum” — that is, rather than purchasing comprehensive, basal texts, schools or states may purchase lots and lots of little “products’  from which the district, the teacher, or even the student, can choose ad lib.(See the Ed Week story here).  Barriers to the inevitable march of progress have been lamented for years (see a 2008 story here), and a recent report by Digital Promise makes clear that purchasing of ed tech is accomplished by rather complicated, and often uncoordinated processes, in which district technology coordinators play a larger role than do teachers (see the report, in bright primary colors, here).

So stories talk about the “death of textbooks”  (see this Atlantic Monthly article), educational publishers jockey for market share.  Yet resistance continues.  Indeed, it turns out that “digital natives,” the young people who are broadly assumed to be so over the old technologies like books, actually prefer hardcopy texts.  Hackeducation, the blog maintained by the estimable Audrey Watters, put me on to the latest such study.

But it’s not only an aesthetic preference (though that term probably hides a multitude of attitudinal, cognitive, and motivational factors).  Digital is different, and not always in ways that serve most learners, or teachers.   The author of a recent book reporting research on e-reading especially for learners, after listing many of the advantages of e-reading and e-texts, summarizes “contra” evidence this way:

Whatever our predilections, when you listen to what large numbers of readers— and reading experts— have to say, a list emerges of the kinds of reading that digital devices generally discourage:

• Reading longer texts
• Rereading
• Deep reading
• Memory of what you have read (which is often aided by handwritten annotation)
• Individual (rather than primarily social) encounters with books
• Stumble-upon possibilities
• Strong emotional involvement
(From Baron, Naomi S. (2014-12-02). Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (p. 213). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. Ho ho!)


Digital texts also can change the way that the classroom works, in ways that may interfere with the “cognitive apprenticeship” in science and mathematics practices that are so important for science learners.  To take a modest example:  My colleague, Gilly Puttick and I, in the course of developing Biocomplexity, an electronic text, found that the digital text alters the authority structures in the classroom, and in particular makes the teacher’s role problematic — not that teachers cannot overcome this, but it is an unforeseen consequence with potentially important consequences for classroom dynamics.  Even digital note-taking is not without significant down-sides in terms of the quality of learning and attention (see the 2014  article  “The pen is mightier than the keyboard,” by Mueller and Oppenheimer in Psychological Science Online doi:10.1177/0956797614524581 — Paywall warning!).

Are you using digital texts?  Is your district or state moving forward to mandate them?  If so, what benefits are you seeing?  How has it changed teaching, if at all?  How about teacher learning?  How much do you yourself do your serious reading (professional or otherwise) online?  Does this mean that you print things off to read them, as so many do, or are you actually increasingly digital?    What are you seeing?  What do you think?








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posted by: Gordon Aubrecht on 9/7/2015 11:05 am


In physics, the publishers are lately offering digital texts for a certain price, and throwing in 3-hole versions for free, or loaning the students books for free (even free postage; the students pay the full book cost if they don't return them by some specified date). I surmise this is to keep the used textbooks off the street and protect the bottom line. However, it gives the students the actual book and a searchable--and notatable--book. (Not that many of them do notate, though.)

Gordon Aubrecht
Ohio State