There's no question ebooks are becoming popular among students and educators alike. Touted as cheaper, lighter, and feature-packed alternatives to expensive textbooks, ebooks are taking classrooms by storm across all levels of education, from elementary school to graduate school. Even librarians are stocking up on ebooks, with the nation's libraries increasing ebook spending by more than 46 percent in 2013 (Library Use of Ebooks). Popularity, however, does not equal efficacy, and so the real question is: do ebooks help students learn?
The benefits of ebooks
A 2011 study sponsored by Kno found that 71 percent of students would prefer their required reading be available in a digital format. That makes sense: at first glance, ebooks appear to offer many benefits to students, educators, and schools. Among those benefits:
• ebooks are often cheaper than print textbooks
• hundreds of ebooks can be carried around in a single tablet, eliminating the need to lug around several heavy books at once
• ebooks offer interactive features, such as videos, quizzes, and games designed to enhance the learning experience
• ebooks offer greater accessibility, such as audio options and text magnification
• ebooks make it fast and easy to search by topic and keyword
In studies conducted by West Chester University's Jordan and Heather Ruetschlin Schugar, researchers reported that young readers were more enthusiastic about learning with ebooks than they were about traditional books. In addition, the Shireland Family Literacy Project found that introducing ebooks to the learning environment increased the number of students who read at home five times per week from five percent to 20 percent.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities tells the story of Sam, a fourth grade student whose grades suffered because he struggled with reading. He was ultimately diagnosed with a learning disability and given ebook materials that allowed him to see and hear words being read. As a result, Sam's reading ability and grades improved.
This brings us to perhaps the greatest benefit ebooks offer: the ability to be customized for specific learning environments, whether it's to customize accessibility options to help students overcome a learning disability, allow students to subscribe to individual class lecture notes for targeted independent study, or allow professors to assign critical reading excerpts that are affordably-priced as opposed to forcing students to purchase expensive larger texts.
Do most students learn better with ebooks?
Despite success stories such as Sam's, ebooks have sometimes been shown to be less effective than traditional print books, particularly in terms of student comprehension. The Schugars' oft-cited research work, though it acknowledges areas in which ebooks excel, demonstrated that students who were given material to read in digital format retained less information than those who were given printed material. The message is clear: no matter how popular ebooks are, they can't be seriously considered if they can't improve upon students' learning.
In another study, the Schugars found that students often skipped over ebook text altogether, opting instead to engage with the enhancements. One study showed that children spent 43 percent of their time on ebooks playing games, not reading.
Technology might be progress, but it can also prove distracting. Some other criticisms of ebooks include:
• students struggling to learn how to quickly operate the devices and/or inefficient software, causing classroom delays
• software and hardware issues, untimely updates, and dead batteries
• easy distractions afforded by email, Facebook, and other web applications
Another drawback: while the initial cost of ebooks is lower than that of new textbooks, used textbooks can prove to be of greater value because they can be resold. Ebooks cannot be resold, and are often simply rented for a period of time.
Many studies published in 2011 and 2012 claim ebooks to be less effective than traditional textbooks; notably, however, one of the Schugars' studies found college students' comprehension to increase with the use of digitally-delivered materials.
Thus, there is quite a bit of ambiguity surrounding ebooks for education. Part of the problem, too, is much of the research conducted on ebooks is two or three years old. That might not seem like a long time, but in the rapidly-evolving world of ubiquitous technology, the learning curve is fast and fierce – which is to say, students who struggled to adapt to ebooks three years ago might be extremely efficient ebook users today, while younger generations who are growing up with tablets and smartphones should have no issues navigating ebooks when their formal educations begin. If those same studies were conducted today, the results might be different.
Another issue is that no large-scale studies have been conducted on ebooks for learning. One of the Schugars' studies, for example, was conducted on just 13 middle-school students; another involved just 18 classrooms. Findings from such limited sample sizes can't possibly be considered conclusive, no matter how groundbreaking the research.
So are ebooks good or bad for learning?
The published studies to-date are inconclusive, due in large part to their small sample sizes. Large-scale studies are needed, conducted over longer periods of time, to conclusively demonstrate the efficacy of ebooks for education. What's more, students' ability to adapt to the ebook learning environment must also be measured; it could be found that students who are skilled at using technology do better than those who do not, in which case technology-use training would need to become part of the ebook curriculum.
In June 2014, National Literacy Trust and RM Books began a joint 16-month study to determine the impact ebooks have on reading motivation and reading attainment. The study will involve 100 different schools and should shed additional light on whether ebooks are good for learning. Final findings are expected to be published in October 2015.
In the meantime, experts agree that ebooks can be highly effective when correctly developed for learning. Many ebooks incorporate enhancements that are anything but – games, for example, that distract from learning rather than reinforce it. Ebook publishers must make a concerted effort to understand what features benefit learning and what features distract from it. Games might help sell ebooks, but they won't help students pass their classes. In addition, students need to be educated on how to use ebooks to their advantage. Guidance from parents and educators is required to teach students to efficiently use tools such as searching, magnification, highlighting, audio, and bookmarking; all the while encouraging content comprehension over feature engagement. This is another role publishers and even software developers can assume as well.
As ClassBook points out, the ability to properly use ebooks is part of the definition of the word “literacy” in the 21st century. This means ebooks are more than likely the future; still, a lot of research, trial and error, and technological advancement has to take place before ebooks can completely replace print textbooks in education.