Is the Future of Textbooks Digital?

Pic | UT San Diego

Mobile technology has reached remote areas which most people would never have expected, and education is one of the fields affected by this revolution. Education apps, MOOC services (Massive Open Online Course) like the popular Coursera or learning about the new technologies itself are some of the trends in this field. However, one of the most discussed issues is the arrival of tablet computers and similar devices to the classroom.

The arrival of iPad and Kindle started a debate in a sector which did not seem to be part of the digital revolution at first. Are we seeing the end of paper textbooks? What are the advantages of digital content?

The Concept of a Digital Textbook

Essentially, we could claim that the digital text book is an adaption of traditional content to an electronic device. The way content is presented is different and changes even from one device to another, but in the end both have the same goal: Helping to learn under the supervision of a teacher. However, the digital format provides all the additional possibilities of tablet computers when it comes to viewing audiovisual contents and most importantly makes interaction of the students with this content easier.

The touch screen is of key importance, because it lets you complete exercises (which are corrected automatically) and make notes. The class becomes much more “playful” in many ways. It also has the capacity to adapt to the level of each student by increasing or decreasing difficulty. And that is not all: Students can have all their school material in the the same place; with everything stored on the same device, they would carry less weight and synergies would be created between the alarm functions of the agenda, word processor and other applications. The initial possibilities are enormous, for students and teachers; this is merely the beginning and progress is limited only by the imagination of developers and teachers.

Among the other advantages, the long term savings stand out and the fact that content can easily be updated in a sustainable way that protects the environment. But what it definitely means is finding a different way to teach: Moving towards a personalized education adaptable to each student, which at the same time allows for much more active participation.

Apple Threw the First Stone

Even though it is not the first time ICT has approached the education sector, the enormous leap Apple caused with its tablet computers is undeniable and it is the perfect excuse to start using information technology in class. From all the plans Steve Jobs had ‘iBooks for Education’ arrived first: A specialized digital library where it is even possible for teachers to publish their own text books. The Cupertino based company also included iOS applications and a specific work environment created for the iPad, as they claim on their website. All this is not surprising if we look at the fact that a company like Pearson, the world’s leading publishing house for educational text books, has a gross income of more than 7500 million dollars.

Apple’s efforts in promoting their educational offer caused more than 600.000 iPads to reach the classrooms at schools in Los Angeles, one for every student. Similar pilot studies are taking place in almost all developed countries, where alternative models to the traditional pen-and-paper education are being tested. This process gets so much attention that private schools use these characteristics to differentiate their educational project, even though the debate about these models is far from over.

How Can Learning Benefit from Digital Books?

We have already mentioned these benefits and they are really not that different from the changes we have seen in other areas over the last few years. However, not everybody believes the revolution taking place will have positive effects once it arrives at the education sector. Prestigious media institutions like Wired argue against these kinds of propositions, because although it may mean a great increase in educational content, a great variety of propositions and learning tools already exists. Instead they claim it would be necessary to make a “selection based on quality” and that the way content is curated “should not be done by public voting” about the most downloaded books. They feel this selection should be done by skilled experts.

One way to make sure we keep content quality up is to continue to work with traditional textbook publishers using their editions for the iPad. In other words, using the same textbooks as always in their modern version; a practice which is criticized by specialists who are bringing modern technology to the classrooms. According to them, the textbook concept itself is outdated and if we want to change the way to teach, we have to start by instructing teachers on how to make good use of these new devices. If we do not, they claim that we are keep going in the same direction; a small adaption and by no means a true revolution of the educational sector.

Will the Revolution Come with a Flatrate?

If we assume they have not already done so, the key question is whether internet and the new mobile devices will change our ways to learn completely at some point, just like they already did with the music and cinema industries. Despite the success of eReaders it is true that physical book sales have started to suffer the effects of the digital revolution much later. Taking services like Spotify and Netflix as examples, propositions like Oyster Books (or 24symbols in Spain) are already offering flatrates for consuming literature.

Is this the kind of impulse needed to push digital textbook distribution forward? This would make it easier to reach a mass audience and it would probably cause a decrease in prices. It would not solve the problem experts are seeing in the recent developments in education, but it would greatly affect the publishing industry, the costs families have to assume purchasing textbooks and it may even get rid of that stereotype image of the student carrying a backpack full of heavy books.

The mSchools programme is a multi-year, multi-faceted mEducation initiative by the Mobile World Capital Barcelona. The mSchools programme is designed to lower dropout rates, improve student attainment in schools across Catalonia and throughout Spain and, ultimately, to better prepare students as they pursue further education and employment in today’s digital world.

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