To e[Text] or not to e[Text]…is that the question?

DURING THE ADVENT AND IMPLEMENTATION OF HACKLEY School’s 9th grade iPad program, a popular discussion about student use of iPads has centered around e-textbooks. At first glance, the idea of e-textbooks sounds great. Students need textbooks and e-textbooks are cheaper, remove weight from those back-breaking book bags, and save trees.

Until the implementation of the 9th grade iPad program, however, e-textbooks were not a viable option for academic departments. Even with the optional “bring your own device” program the Upper School approved in recent years, which gave Upper School students access to the school’s wireless network, teachers choosing textbooks did not have a guarantee that all their students would have a device to read e-textbooks — let alone the same device, which presents a further challenge since many e-textbooks are designed for specific digital devices. The launch of the iPad program removed these barriers to pursuing the option of e-textbooks.

If only it were that simple. While the e-textbook version of the print textbook may address certain issues, many Hackley courses, especially the humanities, no longer use textbooks. On Upper School Parents Day, history teacher Michael Bass’ History 9 presentation highlighted the fact that many of our instructors have veered away from “a textbook” in favor of a conglomeration of primary sources and a variety of different scholarly historical works. Textbooks, they find, offer one perspective and set a lock step linear approach through the material and often attempt to dictate curriculum.
Over the years, I have heard many complaints from teachers about textbooks:

• they do not match the curriculum
• they carry the bias of the author and publisher
• they are out of date as soon as they are printed
• they are designed for use in Texas and California
• the reading level does not match course reading level
• the teacher only needed it for one part of the course
• they are backordered with the distributor

Frequently, the e-textbook is simply a scanned version of the paper text. It does not set out to address the concerns identified above regarding appropriateness for the curriculum, bias, dated content or availability from distributors. It’s just a lighter weight version of the same dissatisfying text. Further, while an e-textbook saves on backpack weight, some are over 10GB, consuming storage on the digital device, leaving less room for software, or necessitating purchase of expensive additional storage. And, frustratingly, because print textbook publishers are still trying to maintain their market in the digital sphere, the e-textbook landscape is littered with proprietary e-readers and non-standard formats.
Still, e-text in the learning environment offers some tremendous advantages. When diving in to academic texts, students have always highlighted, underlined and jammed written notes in the margins. Digital equivalents are powerful learning tools, as highlighted and underlined e-text can easily be pulled out and organized with the student notes. When referring back to e-text, all the text and the reader’s markups are easily searchable by entering key words. Readers notes also no longer need to be crammed into the available space in the margins but can simply be attached in the background.

English teacher Nicole Butterfield recently relayed an experience where she demonstrated these tools to one of her students and he immediately abandoned his print version. e-Text and the tools associated with e-readers can free up the analytic reading process in the same way that word processing can free up the tedious aspects of revision in the writing process.

The reality of the digital world that has brought e-textbooks also brings us transformative alternatives to e-textbooks. As we consider the opportunities presented by technology, it’s important to not to force analog models into their digital equivalents — instead, we need to seek technology tools that allow faculty to transform their teaching.
As a digital medium e-text also has the possibility to marry with other digital formats including images, audio and video. Many e-textbook producers have taken advantage of this fact by replacing the traditional textbook illustration with video of science experiment demonstration or audio of a historic song. Such integration can also promote improved learning of a topic.

In the case of Hackley’s Physics 9 course, teacher Bill McLay took the path of self-publishing. What started as an e-text has, as the digital publishing tools have improved, evolved to include digital video and provide in multiple formats making it both accessible and up to date.

Each teacher’s HOL page can, in its own way, come to replace the old “textbook” model. Many Hackley faculty have taken to heavily populating their HOL class pages. By using the flexibility of a website, Faculty can post information for students as they create it or as they find useful resources on the Internet. Teachers delivering “Flipped Classrooms” publish their videos here as they move through lessons. Providing links to useful content on the Internet also avoids the need to photocopy and distribute recently discovered valuable resources. This practice has the added benefit of avoiding issues of copyright and gives the teachers opportunities for discussion about what comprises an appropriate internet resource. The website also provides a platform for sharing student-generated content and classroom records. Photos and videos of student projects as well as classroom notes generated from Smart Boards can all be posted, providing enriching and timely resources. Students and teachers can continue reflective discussions outside the class through blogging.

Our new version of HOL also allows for teachers to organize this material into “Topics.” As the material gathered on their websites grow, instructors can place the various digital forms and resources together under one idea paralleling the arrangement of the curriculum. Curating content for students on a website allows a teacher to vet the resources they present and organize the content in ways that best support the curriculum they deliver.

With these new tools at their disposal, our teachers are exploring the many opportunities they present. As with anything, each of the solutions presented here is not all bad or all good. As we learned with the power outages during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, websites (and internet access) can, on occasion, have their limitations as well, and we continue to evaluate the tools on which we rely. e-Texts are not necessarily better that print text, dynamic electronic resources not always better than e-textbooks. All these tools have appropriate uses especially when you consider students learning styles, different learning experiences, and means of access. The iPad program this year is one step further ahead in providing the proper blend of those resources.

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