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E-books v. Paper Textbooks

download_pdf_smTechnology is an increasingly prevalent factor in the decisions being made by K-12 school districts. Schools have come a long way and many now use different types of technology for things like attendance, grade books, student records, and even classroom resources. One such resource is the student textbook. As book publishers evolve and dip their proverbial toes into new pools, they are beginning to produce increasingly sophisticated online textbooks, or e-books. Districts may find themselves wondering if it is advantageous to switch from using paper texts to using e-books. Addressing the pros and cons of each will help districts make these difficult decisions.

It Ain’t Heavy, It’s My Laptop!

The average laptop computer weighs five pounds and e-readers/tablets weigh even less. The average textbook weighs three pounds and a typical student will have at least four classes requiring a textbook- including Math, where they can easily calculate a total textbook weight of 12 pounds! Pencils, notebooks, and snacks add another few pounds to an already full backpack. We’ve all seen the student that cowers under the weight of her own backpack! The student may be thinking “if only the district would realize that e-books weigh nothing!”

Aside from the fact e-books are light, they also typically cost much less than an actual textbook (sometimes half!), and may also contain some pretty neat extras such as a built-in dictionary, embedded videos, text-to-audio capability, and search/highlight features that can serve as differentiation tools. In addition, textbook companies can easily update electronic versions of a textbook whereas a paper textbook is quickly outdated, requiring the purchase and printing of new textbooks at an additional cost to both the district and the environment!

Give Me Back My Book!

If we asked readers to raise their hands if they prefer a paper copy of a book over an electronic copy, a large number of those over the age of 40 would be waving their hands wildly. That isn’t an arbitrary number…the Digital Age was in its infancy during the 1970s. Amazon.com wasn’t even a twinkle and the first cell phone was the size of a large shoebox. It should come as no surprise, then, when some educators adamantly demand to have the book in their hands instead of at their fingertips! This group may also subscribe to the belief that students need the paper textbook as well.

For those with technology experience, reliability is a factor in how they feel about e-books in the classroom. Some e-books can only be opened if the reader is on the internet or at a certain computer – they cannot be downloaded. If the internet is down or the student isn’t using his own computer, access to the text may be denied… so how does he finish his homework? There are also e-book versions that do not have any of the previously described “perks” like being searchable or having videos/dictionaries. Opponents would say “why bother?” if the e-book didn’t offer any features different than the actual words on the pages.
Although the internet is undeniably popular, there are still many homes not equipped with access to it. Students living in these homes are left to figure out an alternative method for reading the information in the textbook. In the homes equipped with internet service, students must also stay vigilant and not succumb to the temptation of visiting Facebook, checking email, or surfing instead of reading their e-textbook! Easier said than done!

There is also a matter of cost. Are textbooks more expensive than e-books? Sure they are. However, laptop computers and tablet/readers are not cheap and they are difficult to fix if something goes wrong.

How to Decide?

When individuals choose to read e-books or paperbacks, the decision is often based on personal preference. However, school districts must weigh the decision more carefully and rely on policies, budget, and the district mission. Is an interactive textbook a necessity? Does it fit the budget? Is it what’s best for students? Once these questions have been answered, the district can move forward and make a decision. If a district already has a laptop/tablet initiative where students are equipped with a device, e-books may be a logical and economical choice.