E-Textbooks: Points to Ponder on Pixels and Paper

E-Textbooks: Points to Ponder on Pixels and Paper

Why bother with a printed textbook? Adopting an e-text seems like a no-brainer when you consider the potential advantages of learning in a multimedia environment that can be tailored to the needs of all learners. But can an e-text really meet everyone’s needs? I don’t think so. Let’s take a look at their potential, and some concerns I have.

E-Text Potential

The ideal e-text does not yet exist, but publishers are making in-roads. All of the following would be true of the ideal e-textbook:

It employs all the principles of Universal Design for Learning with multiple supports and scaffolds, and multiple means of expression, representing information and engagement.

It has an intuitive, consistently designed layout with hyperlinks to chapters, sections, subheadings, and pages. Pages download quickly. A search feature is available to help users find related content. The text provides all the plug-ins needed for viewing and interactions. Cross-referencing of resources is available. Supplementary activities are linked to the use of every resource.

Students and teachers can customize the book to fit their learning styles and accessibility needs. Modular formats are used, perhaps matched to individual state standards for K-12 users with corresponding test-items. This format would enable students and teachers to take advantage of reusable learning objects — mixing and matching as needed. Teachers can add additional exercises and directions, or exemplary examples of student work. Everyone’s data is secure and password protected.

Content can be bookmarked, so users can easily navigate to where they left off in their reading or assignments. They can save work, keep journals, add comments and notes, highlight key concepts, and easily retrieve the same. Any content can be printed, particularly for archives. This is not only a convenience and time factor, but supports learning styles. Easy access to the book is available for at least a couple of years after a course ends.

There are reading supports, embedded prompts, summaries, and links to prerequisite background knowledge. By clicking on a word or phrase, learners can hear the word, read its definition, and see an example of its use, perhaps via a glossary. All bilingual learners can translate content into their native languages. Fortunately, software and online resources already exist for translating Web pages to German, French, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Italian, and Russian.

It includes diagnostic tests, self-assessments, homework help, and prescriptive learning with immediate feedback and reinforcement. It enables students to complete text exercises online. There is an extensive database of related questions to assist students with content mastery and understanding, and activities for applications of new technology, such as handhelds. E-texts are linked together for students to provide feedback to each other or collaborate within the textbook in a class wiki.


K-12 e-texts I have reviewed have many of the desirable features noted above, but many are just online versions of printed texts with some multimedia enhancements, which only supplement the needs of some learners. They do not all feature warning messages when links are made to content outside the text, and some of that linked content was not necessarily appropriate. This raises concerns about online safety and the amount of time it requires teachers to take preparing lessons with it.

I have other concerns, but the greatest is the potential increase in physiological problems in learners spending so much time using computers. I do not recommend an exclusive adoption of e-texts for K-12 without research on how students adapt to online textbooks. Such an inquiry might be similar to Robert Vernon’s case study in higher education, “Paper or Pixels? An Inquiry into How Students Adapt to Online Textbooks” (2006, Journal of Social Work Education, 42 (2), Spring/Summer). In that study, it was clear that the e-text did not serve everyone’s needs. Students approached electronic reading differently and many made paper copies when permitted; some experienced increased eye strain and got headaches because reading online was physically more taxing.

So...paper or pixels? I see great potential for learning with e-texts, and a future with an increase in their use, but I don’t see traditional texts disappearing anytime soon.

Online Resources

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education, and is currently an adjunct faculty member in the graduate School of Education at Capella University. She is also the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence.