Guest Post: Realizing The Benefits Of Digital Textbooks – Without A Tablet In Sight

There’s no question that digital textbooks are the newest craze when it comes to classroom technology. Thanks to the success of the newest iPad, the contracts signed between Apple and major publishers, and the cost advantages of digital versions over time, teachers and administrators have been increasingly making the switch from traditional to electronic textbooks.

According to early studies, such a transition is in the students’ best interest: a pilot program carried out in Riverside, California found that 78 percent of digital textbook users scored “Proficient” or “Advanced” on a standardized math test. This compares with a statistically significant 59 percent figure among students who studied with traditional means. While this is only one study, it still generally supports Apple’s contention – that digital textbooks are not only easier to use and cheaper to purchase, but they also do a better job of stimulating children to learn.

But for many educators, these conclusions do little to spur their interest in digital textbooks. These educators don’t like the upfront costs, the flashiness of the system, and the simple fact that teaching is not done with pen and paper. They don’t believe that a piece of technology can alone make students learn better; rather, they maintain that it is the teacher’s prerogative to instill that understand in their classroom.

And they’re right: when asked why they performed better on standardized tests after using a digital math textbook, students didn’t point to elements of the technology itself. Instead they spoke highly of how it changed their classroom experience – an experience that became more individualized, more exciting, and more goal-oriented as a result. These attributes can certainly be targeted and replicated by instructors who shy away from the new digital order. Here are a few tips:

-Individual focus: We’ve long known that interventions for differentiated instructions help students build more personalized and effective learning plans. Such plans can be constructed without the help of digital software, such as by having assessments at the start of the school year, identifying (and focusing on) each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and building classroom activities that progress in different directions depending on how well the individual student is handling it.

-Excitement: Students currently find digital textbooks exciting because they are at the forefront of technology and because they offer a different educational approach from the one they’ve grown bored of. But, as digital textbooks become more used and widespread, we can expect students to lose interest in them just as with any other medium of instruction. This underlies the key factor in producing “exciting” classroom instruction: variability. By switching things up, then, a teacher can keep a lesson interesting and interactive without needing to use an iPad.

-Goal-oriented: In addition to providing individualized and interactive lesson plans, digital software programs are increasingly finding ways to record and document a student’s progress throughout the class. The student can check that progress at any time and, in doing so, gain a motivation and sense of purpose that math itself sadly cannot be expected to provide. A teacher can take the same approach in a traditional classroom setting by finding ways to chart progress and by being willing to discuss an individual’s successes and goals at any time. By following these techniques an instructor can achieve the successes of digital textbooks without having an iPad in sight. While digital education may be the standard of the future, instruction ultimately depends on the nature in which information in conveyed in a classroom setting. So teachers can learn from digital textbooks – and can take advantage of their benefits – without feeling compelled to actually conform and make the switch.

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