Outlandishly heavy and even more outlandishly expensive, textbooks are losing a popularity contest to their digital counterparts. The verdict became somewhat official last week when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that textbooks should soon be obsolete in the American school system.
Duncan and other digital proponents believe such a digital revolution is necessary, not only to keep up with technology, but also with the rest of the world. In his speech to the National Press Club, he mentioned South Korea, which has announced plans to phase out textbooks by 2015. The United States is unlikely to get rid of its textbooks in three years, despite all the complaints against them. But some states are closer than others. California’s Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that would provide 50 digital textbooks used in core lower-division classes in California colleges online for free.
However, an October 9 op-ed in the New York Times cautions against throwing away the books just yet. Despite the myriad benefits, Justin Hollander, an assistant professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, wrote in the article that a hasty switch to digital media could have unforeseen — and undesirable — repercussions further down the road.
“Secretary Duncan is threatening to light a bonfire to a tried-and-true technology — good old paper — that has been the foundation for one of the great educational systems on the planet,” he writes. “And while e-readers and multimedia may seem appealing, the idea of replacing an effective learning platform with a widely hyped but still unproven one is extremely dangerous.”
Hollander makes several good points, and as an English major whose favorite place in the world is a second-hand bookstore, I am inclined to agree with him. But I can’t help but feel that he is ignoring the full potential of technology in education. It is true that because of the newness of the technology, its long-term implications for learning are unclear. And in the current economic climate, it’s not very likely that many school districts can afford to outfit every student with a tablet or a laptop.
But there is so much more that digital textbooks can do. They provide an opportunity to reimagine the education system, so that it is personalized to the individual student. Explanatory videos, customized quizzes, and interactive features could transform how students learn. Though traditional textbooks have been integral to that process so far, it is time they are joined by their lighter, less expensive counterparts.