by Carol Horner
Since the invention of the printing press, the book has been the instrument for learning throughout the world. There are books on every topic imaginable, and it's books that preserve the historic records of nations for generations to come. Learning is as important today as it was in Gutenberg's time. But the instrument is changing. The ebook is altering our approach to reading and, therefore, to education.
While ebooks are not a new idea, they have yet to have an impact on education. Teachers have used digital books with elementary school children for years – encyclopedias and textbooks on CD, for example. However, these CDs were often flat, boring pages in a .pdf format - a format that did little to excite students and effect learning. In contrast, today's ebooks offer a dynamic, interactive learning experience.
One of my first questions as I began my search for ebooks was what platform would work the best in a school setting. I talked with teachers and heard great things about the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad. However, as I spoke with the students, I found out that they are not interested in yet another device, but preferred rather to combine their notes, notebooks, and books within one device. After listening to the students, I started looking at laptops - and soon realized that none of the above readers does everything that the laptop does. Since many schools already have laptops or netbooks in the hands of their students, this seemed to be the most reasonable choice for schools.
I thought there might be problems getting some of the books my students need into a format that could be read on a laptop. Two things encouraged me in this search. Amazon has a Kindle application for PC. Any book my students can download as a Kindle book can be read on their laptops. Also, I discovered a piece of software that allows you to change the format that an ebook is published in. Calibre can convert most ebook formats into a format that can be read on a different devices, including a PC, and is available free.
Advantages and Effects on Education
The next leg of my ebook journey was to determine what educational benefits ebooks offer. It's common knowledge that textbooks are often out of date as soon as they are printed. Not only are ebooks easier for the textbook companies to update and correct, but they also are easier for students to carry. I worry when I watch some of our students walking to school with a backpack that looks like it weighs more than they do. With an ebook program, students can load their ebooks on their laptop and carry many books in a small, manageable digital package.
McGraw Hill reports that 95% of their textbooks are now available in an electronic format that features interactivity, media-rich content and built-in search and note-taking functions. These digital textbooks aren't the flat .pdf files of the old days. Rather, they incorporate video clips, links to web sites, and considerably more photos and graphics than can be included in a print version of the same book. These extra features greatly enhance the educational effect of the textbook.
In an interview for the New York Times, Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish School in Lake Charles, LA states, “Kids are wired differently these days. They think of knowledge as infinite. They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear, and rote.” She goes on to encourage teachers to find digital resources like blogs and wikis to use in the classroom. These resources engage students in a completely different way than an ordinary textbook can -- and ebooks tap into this shift in learning.
Ebooks contain diagnostic tests, self-assessments, and help with homework. Students can click on a word or phrase, hear its pronunciation, and read its definition. These features are not only a convenience for students but also support multiple learning styles. Another huge advantage is that ebooks can be translated into a student’s native language. Students can hear and manipulate content as well as read it.
There are also economic and environmental advantages to ebooks. A traditional textbook can cost $100 - $200. Add to that cost the problem of theft, loss, damage, and the subject matter becoming outdated, and the need to go paperless becomes clear. In a time when schools are looking to cut budgets anywhere they can, ebooks could be one option worth pursuing.
Standard ebooks from the publisher are great, but may not be the solution for all teachers. Below are a few of the ebooks available from the web:
- Flexbooks (www.ck12.org) offer extensive titles in math and science, correlate to state standards, are customizable, easy to update, and free.
- Classic Books Online (www.classicsarchive.com) has about 1600 books available in either HTML or .pdf format. There's no advertising, and they're searchable, printable, and easy to use.
- Curriki.org has 150,000 members that share curriculum ideas, resources and knowledge with each other.
- Kinetic books offers math and science books through CD, web download, or web access. They also have virtual science labs available.
- MIT (ocw.mit.edu/high-school) has free online courseware available for teachers and students in math, science, and the humanities.
- Planet eBook (www.planetebook.com) has classic literature available as a free download.
- Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) has over 33,000 titles available in a variety of languages. These can be read on a variety of devices including a laptop. While these titles are free, they do ask for a small donation to help cover their costs.
- Smarthistory.org is a free resource for art history teachers and includes videos, timelines, and podcasts.
- Flat World Books (www.flatworldknowledge.com) are designed for use on the web and are offered in several formats including a free online version as well as a downloadable electronic version. Flat World also provides study tools like flashcards and practice quizzes.
The use of these dynamic, media-rich digital resources will require teachers to rethink how they teach, and to start to think in terms of materials and resources instead of a “textbook.” Teachers will need to be careful selecting materials found online; even resources that are collaborative works by educators can contain errors. However, in most cases, these online resources will be more accurate than textbooks that were published years ago.
Implementing Ebooks in a K-12 Environment
After exploring the available resources, some teachers may settle on an ebook from a distributor while others may end up pulling resources from a variety of sources. A third option will be for teachers to write their own curriculum. This is a great choice for veteran teachers who have a good grasp on the concepts and objectives that need to be covered, and have access to training to support them as they develop their curriculum. Training should include formatting choices for their electronic curriculum, such as a wiki, a blog, or Microsoft OneNote, all of which allow for the insertion of multimedia elements and easy distribution to the student body. However, placing the entire curriculum online may not be appropriate if some students would be unable to access these materials at home.
A key part of implementation is getting the entire faculty involved and excited about ebooks. Some teachers are hooked on their textbooks and cannot imagine teaching without them. Textbooks make the teachers’ lives easier; they are a one-stop shop for information, questions, and projects. They help the teacher stay organized and cover all the necessary information. However, they rarely help students learn better. Administrators should take the lead in implementing ebooks by consulting with schools already using them, and learning from their successes and struggles. Teachers with ebook expertise can advise and mentor those who haven't used them yet.
Advantageous as ebooks are, they're not practicable for schools which cannot afford a one-to-one program. That's unfortunate, because in many ways, schools implementing one-to-one programs with ebooks are helping even the playing field between the “haves” and the “have nots” in their schools. In today's world, all students need equal access to technology in order to learn the skills they need to be productive citizens.
Present Use and Future Prospects
Ebooks are here to stay. It may take a while to get everyone on board, but this is the wave of the future. California is leading the way in this new adventure. In May 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger declared that all high school math and science books would be free, open-source digital books starting in the fall of 2009. He estimated that California could save $400 million by switching to digital math and science books. Although Schwarzenegger 's motivation was financial, his decision demonstrated that high-quality digital publications are a viable choice for school systems. Californians are happy with the progress they have made with this initiative and the state has announced that it plans to extend this program to other subject areas.
Other states, including Texas, Virginia, Florida, and Indiana, are launching digital textbook initiatives of their own. These states have a huge influence on textbook publishers and have the ability to encourage the development and distribution of electronic resources. It is expected that many more states will jump into this program in the coming years.
While economics may be currently driving this program, we should not forget the great advantages that ebooks bring to education. Today's students have grown up using technology to communicate with and engage society. They have had access to computers, cell phones, email, and the internet since birth. They speak the language of technology fluently and are as comfortable with the digital screen as past generations have been with pen and paper. Education must evolve to keep up with the way these digital natives learn and process information. Ebooks, if implemented properly, have the potential to revolutionize education.
Carol Horner is the Director of Technology at the Wesleyan School