Every semester, I get countless emails from textbook publishers heralding the latest advances in e-Textbooks and digital supplements. The onset of this new form of educational technology has led many critics to tout the death of the traditional printed textbook. Brian Kibby, president of McGraw-Hill Education group, a textbook publisher, threw down the gauntlet on InsideHigherEd.com:
“As I see it, the publishing industry needs to do all it can to ensure that within 36 months, higher education in the U.S. will be completely digital. I’m not talking about a slight or even gradual increase in e-book adoptions or the use of adaptive learning. I’m talking about a total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems. Aside from the college library, you hopefully won’t be able to find a printed textbook on a college campus in three years. And if you are, we should all be disappointed.”
Ever since I got my Kindle Fire and new iPhone, I can understand this position. These seductive little inventions have shown me just how valuable easy accessibility to technology is and the tremendous options available to me. And, why should I tote around piles of heavy books when I can just whip out a little device that gives me worlds of knowledge right at my fingertips?
The death of the book-or, more appropriately, the murder of the book-is not a new idea. The scenario of a paperless or bookless world in which electronic technology replaces the printed word was proposed in the 1970s, and people still haven’t fully embraced it. In fact, Christopher Evans predicted the death of the book in 1979, but as S. David Mash points out, the traditional book “thrived at unprecedented levels in terms of both publishing volume and sale” during the 1980s. In her recent New York Times article Dead Again, Leah Price noted that “every generation rewrites the book’s epitaph; all that changes is the whodunit.”
But the death of the book still hasn’t happened – and I don’t think it’s going to. This seems especially clear to me when it comes to textbooks. Every semester for the past few years I have offered my students the option of e-Textbooks, and only a handful out of hundreds have ever opted to use them. Last spring, I watched one student struggle to read the textbook on his iPad, only to purchase the bound version half-way through the semester. There were many reasons for his difficulties with the e-Textbook: lack of screen clarity, inability to stay on the same page with the rest of the class, power source problems at home and in the classroom, etc. While there are certainly thousands of students who do not have those difficulties with eBooks, student needs are one of the reasons I hope the traditional book format, relic though some think it is, stays with us forever:
In fact, there are several reasons I think that we will always need traditional bound books:
- I’ve never been a fan of “one-size-fits-all” instructional methodologies, because the classroom is filled with students of such varied abilities and preferences. The more options we offer, the better chance our students have of succeeding. Just as digital technologies have expanded the opportunities for many disabled students, we need to be equally cognizant of those students for whom digital content is simply not as easy to manage or is uncomfortable. The turn to all-digital material would be a mistake for these students and leave them without options for learning.
- The digital divide means that an enormous number of students will be left out of this all-new digital world, unable to afford either the devices that contain them or Internet access-and there’s no way that educational budget problems and income inequalities will be resolved within Kibby’s three year framework. This divide will exacerbate and perpetuate already nightmarish inequalities among various segments of the student population, leaving poorer students lagging academically. As poorer students in our county often tend to be members of minority populations, which already suffer from various forms of inequality, we will be creating a larger and more permanent under-educated underclass, surely an impediment to the proper functioning of a democratic society.
- Technology is fallible. Sorry, techies, but it is. Ask anyone who loses their internet connection during a storm. How many students will lose crucial studying time, or be unable to submit assignments, when they cannot access their all-digital materials? Devices can also become outdated and incompatible with newer materials. National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen has famously pointed out the problems with technologies that might replace traditional books: “The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now.”
- There are also less technical and more emotional reasons why some people prefer traditional books. As blogger Lindsay Howell argues, “Some people just like the feel of an actual book in their hands. Some are hard-core bibliophiles. Some are not comfortable with e-book technology. Others have been collecting physical print media all their lives and have no plans to stop.” In other words, books come with emotional attachments. I have often given or been given a book with a personal inscription on the inside, from a close friend, family member, or loved one. The inscription indicates an intimate attachment between two people who share common values or experiences. The book is a tangible expression of that relationship.
There are so many reasons why the printed book is valuable for everyone, not just students. That’s why, contrary to digital media evangelists, I think there’s room for – and demand for – all forms of what we call the “book.” The only scenario that should actually leave us all disappointed would be if printed books disappeared completely.