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Hitting the eBooks: digital textbooks’ booming popularity among teachers

Nick Jaramillo

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For many years, instructors at the College of the Sequoias had few options as far as choosing which, if any, textbook they would use for their courses. The most common pick was the traditional doorstopper of a textbook, which offered little pedagogical use beyond assigning students portions of the tome to read, which, of course, they seldom did. However, recently a new educational innovation has been changing the way courses are structured as well as the way instructors teach them: digital textbooks.

“I’ve been here since before we had email addresses,” recollects George Woodbury, a math instructor at COS for 23 years. “Digital textbooks, nobody had any idea what that would be at all.”

In the early 1990s when Woodbury first began teaching math courses at COS, courses were structured around inefficient and time-consuming methods of instruction. Rather than focusing on helping statistics students with problem-solving and understanding the material, Woodbury was reduced to explaining rudimentary concepts and referencing tables of numbers.

“We used to have to use binomial and normal probability values in a table,” explains Woodbury. “The class was almost about how to read tables of numbers than actually think about problems. The way things have changed, in terms of the technology for doing statistics, allows us to focus more on identifying problems and interpreting answers. We can do a lot more problems than we used to be able to do. I know that my students the first time I taught statistics are lightyears away in terms of what they really understood than my students today.”

This sentiment is echoed by Catherine Medrano, an associate professor of sociology at COS who recently became a convert to the digital textbook philosophy.

“The reason why I decided to move to the digital format is not just because its in digital format, but because of what that allows you to do with it,” explains Medrano. “For [Pearson Education’s] Revel program, it comes with embedded quizzes so that way they can monitor the students, whether or not they’re reading. So I can actually track all my students and say, ‘have they read all the sections? How much time are they spending reading? How are they doing on their quizzes?’ Being able to see if they’re doing the work I’m assigning them.”

Medrano first became disillusioned with the traditional pedagogical approach while teaching at Fresno City College, where she found her students chronically underperforming.

“I really was motivated to switch over because I was working at Fresno City and my students were failing my Sociology 1 course,” Medrano explains. “I mean, all-out failing. Their exam scores were very poor and I could tell it was because they weren’t reading [the textbook]. I would come to class and say, ‘okay everybody, what is deviance?’ And nobody would say anything. You could hear the crickets. Nobody had read, except for maybe one person. I ended up curving their exam scores. I let them use their study guides on the test. And they were still failing the class!”

Frustrated, Medrano began experimenting with Revel, one of Pearson Education’s many supplementary educational programs.

“When I switched to Revel, there was that point value that’s being attached to their work, making sure they’re reading. Again, I can track their progress and now I don’t let any of my students use their study guides [on exams], I don’t curve their exams, I don’t let them drop their lowest exam—I used to do that before—and my students are doing fine. Their average scores have increased with this new technology in the classroom. It’s not because it’s digital, it’s because of what you can do with a digital platform that I couldn’t do before with the textbook.”

While digital textbooks have the capacity to improve students performance, it also has the added benefit of freeing up class time to be used more efficiently.

“[Digital textbooks] changed the way I can teach my classes,” says Woodbury. “At the algebra level, there were certain kinds of mistakes students would make all the time. I used to spend a lot of time in class having to address those. But now that students are using an online homework package that corrects it in real time, I don’t get those kinds of questions anymore.

“I think what the technology allows us to do is focus more on big-picture concepts, understanding, than we were before. I think that’s where our strength is. You don’t need me to show you how to use the quadratic formula. Anyone can show you that. I can now spend more time talking about, ‘when should we use the quadratic formula? When is there a better strategy?’ Those kinds of things. I can go into those ideas in a lot more depth. I think it makes better students.”

“I like spending the in-class time discussing the work rather than having every class period take 15 minutes or something to do a quiz,” concurs Medrano. “Because we could be talking during that time.”

While many teachers have become enamored with the powerful learning tools provided by digital textbooks, not all are as easily swayed. This attitude may stem partly from a lack of awareness about the immense utility of digital textbooks.

“I think there may be instructors that aren’t aware of the power that’s available,” ponders Woodbury. “You may think that it doesn’t apply to you anyway because your discipline—you don’t think it would really benefit the students as much as, say, in a math class, but I don’t think that’s true either. I think that if you’re a history professor, incorporating those kinds of videos, hearing Churchill speak, seeing an animation of a map that’s changing as you’re studying a war that’s occurred. I think that those kinds of things really lend some power to it. I think that if you’re not using it, that you should look back into these tools.”

For their part, Pearson has spared no expense investing in the digital textbook component of their educational juggernaut of a company.

“Pearson is helping students to manage the costs of an education by offering a range of course materials in different formats,” says Scott Overland, a spokesman for Pearson, in a statement to The Campus. “In many cases, our digital course materials offer savings of up to 60% compared to traditional printed textbooks. Digital materials are less expensive and a good investment. They offer new features like mobile device compatibility, mobile apps, audio texts—so you can listen to assigned readings at the gym or in the car—personalized knowledge checks, and expert videos. These materials also make learning more interesting and effective by including interactive assignments with fast feedback and the ability to have digital discussions with classmates.

“We are continuing to invest in our digital offerings to improve outcomes for students and ensure they have materials that fit into their budgets and their lifestyle.”

While Pearson’s vice grip on the digital textbook industry seems to overshadow their competitors, Woodbury believes that in time other companies will compete with Pearson for control of the digital textbook industry.

“What I think is going to happen is that some big, forward-thinking company like Google or Amazon or Microsoft will come up with a similar kind of package that works across the board,” predicts Woodbury. “I think that’s where we’re heading. Pearson was probably the first into this area in the strongest way and their math product, I think, is a lot better in terms of the power that’s there. But I think that before my other 23 years here are done, I think it’s going to be disrupted in some way by some group that’s not necessarily an education group right now, but will be on their way to becoming one.”

The way Woodbury views things, innovation is a cyclical process and no one remains at the forefront for very long.

“The guys at Blockbuster thought they had it all figured out. Then, we got Netflix. The guys at Kodak thought they had it all figured out. They knew about digital photography, but they couldn’t understand that there was going to come a time when people didn’t need film. I think it’s the same thing. There’s always going to be a new technology that’s going to disrupt the old. You either have to be way out in front of it or you’re going to get knocked out. And you don’t know when that new challenge is coming. I think it’s just a matter of time.”

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Hitting the eBooks: digital textbooks’ booming popularity among teachers