I Love eBooks, But They Suck As Textbooks

Since the launch of the Kindle, I’ve read eBooks on Kindle, iBooks, Kobo and and Nook—an average of one a week since the first week of December 2007. That’s a lot, and there’s a reason: eBooks are great for certain kinds of reading. I choose the format for crime fiction and occasionally non-fiction, though I prefer print for other categories. But based on my experience as a parent (and backed up by the research literature), however optimal eBooks are for thrillers and romances, they suck as textbooks.

My daughters—Clare in ninth grade, and Carolyn in nursing school—both are assigned reading in eBooks available through their respective schools’ systems. Not only do those systems have often-confusing user interfaces (UIs), but as with any system like this, there are random glitches. The other night Clare was attempting to open up an assigned reading—due the next day—and no amount of clicking on the link would work. These systemic ills could probably be helped—but certainly not eliminated—by a redesigned school system, and it is true that printed textbooks have their own issues. But the fact remains that eBooks are seriously inferior to print when it comes to doing deep reading—the kind you do when you really have to learn the content—rather than just breezing through the latest Jack Reacher thriller.

For instance, Clare is taking AP Government, which has a textbook full of concepts requiring total concentration on her part to absorb and actually learn, both for the sake of learning and of course for taking tests and writing essays. In addition to the UI and reliability issues of the classroom system, the textbook in question is practically impossible to read on the devices the kids are required to use: either a laptop or Chromebook. A page doesn’t fit on the screen, and with all the scrolling around Clare finds herself losing the thread of the dense text. Finally I bought her the print edition, a $100 title discounted to $73. Seventy-three dollars for a ninth grade text. She was ecstatic.

Well, as ecstatic as you can be about AP Government.

Carolyn, my older daughter, who is deep into a tough nursing curriculum, rented a required series of three textbooks for $120 for the year, and then wound up buying the print edition for $580 because concentrated studying using eBooks does not work for her. As with Clare’s AP Government text, the pages of the ebook version are not even formatted for laptop screens. In addition, in the nursing online textbook scrolling doesn’t work correctly.

You might argue that this has more to do with my daughters’ learning styles than any inherent deficiencies of eBooks, but in fact there is ample evidence that print is better for concentrated learning than eBooks.

A November 2013 article in Scientific American surveyed the literature on reading print vs. reading on screen. Over 100 studies showed a persistent difference in the two experiences. From a purely pedagogical point of view, print is consistently shown to be more effective at enabling learning in depth, largely due to the modesty of the print-reading experience: no bells and whistles to distract. But interestingly, it is more than that. We navigate a book somewhat in the same way we navigate space, with the verso and recto pages, the four corners of the page, and the thickness of the book in hand providing a mental map of the ideas within the book. Reading, it turns out, is not just a mental experience; it engages both mind and body. Memory techniques known since classical times—the “Memory Palace,” or “Method of Loci”—use spatial learning as an aid to memory. These techniques enable incredible feats, such as memorizing the value of pi to over 65,000 places. Like the Method of Loci, the process of reading a printed book engages those areas of the brain that process spatial information. The fact that a printed book is a three-dimensional object, it turns out, makes a significant difference. A difference especially for informational reading, as with textbooks, but also in reading narratives, according to the research.

Well, as far as narratives are concerned, I’ll stick with eBooks for reading my police procedurals. But kids shouldn’t be stuck with eBooks when they have hours of homework every day already and are tested on the results of their studying. Whatever the rationale behind supplying only eTextbooks, it is a failure. Perhaps there is money saved somewhere (really though, when either parents or the district have to provide an expensive device for each kid plus expensive IT resources to keep the whole system functioning?), or perhaps there is some thought that by dealing with balky and confusing institutional computer systems you’re preparing them for real life (ain’t that the truth?), the fact remains that eBooks are a demonstrably inferior medium for textbook content.

Finally, my ninth-grader attends school in a district rich in resources, and we as a family have the wherewithal to pick up expensive textbooks when need be to make up the deficiencies in the supplied eBooks. But what happens in poorer districts? What happens in families who don’t have the resources to drop on $70 textbooks in ninth grade?

Schools need to seriously rethink using eBooks for course material, or ditch them altogether.