Saturday, August 21, 2010

Could Digital Textbooks Be a Mistake?

I just finished The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr and I feel compelled to get some thoughts organized while its ideas are still fresh on my mind. While The Shallows is an interesting book on its own, it is especially thought-provoking when considered along with Born Digital. The premise of the latter book is that kids today, who are digital natives because they were born into an entirely digital world, possess brains that are physically hard-wired differently from kids' brains of generations past because of the way they interact with all things digital. The Shallows, coincidentally, cites loads of research supporting the same premise. Carr, though, specifically addresses how the Internet, with all its distractions, reduces our attention span, adversely affects our ability to read and concentrate for extended periods of time, makes us seek the easy way every time, generally undoes all of the effects of reading from a good old fashioned book, and physically alters the architecture and functioning of our brains.

If you have ever read what I've written here or if you know anything about me, you know I am anything but a Luddite. Having said that, though, I find myself reconsidering the effectiveness of digital textbooks. I'm a smart enough guy to be discerning about the contents of the books I read and I don't jump on the bandwagon for every book on my reading list. I think critically and analytically and I devote significant amounts of mental energy weighing the content of everything I read. This most recent read is no exception.

I haven't completely formulated my theory yet, but here is my initial thought: Digital textbooks, hyped because of the interactive content (hyperlinks, embedded video and audio clips, etc.), may actually prevent students from concentrating for extended periods of time and, therefore, may be less effective than traditional textbooks for students trying to grasp difficult concepts or commit to memory large amounts of information.
I'm not suddenly opposed to all digital textbooks. I can see great advantages to having digital textbooks in some subjects and at some levels as well as disadvantages for digital textbooks in other subjects and at other levels. I'm going to address this again later this week after I've had a chance to get organized and do a little more reading. Check back for updates. In the meantime, track down both Born Digital and The Shallows and add them to your reading list (I should point out that both books are full of far more research topics and fascinating ideas than the few I've presented here). The books may not affect you the way they affected me but the research in both should intrigue you.


Shawn said...

There is of course a question of how much any student actually reads textbooks anyway. I think of a textbook as a reference, not really something to read. (I clarify that I refer to high school science textbooks here. College, or liberal arts books may change everything.)

Nathan Barber said...

I can't completely disagree and that's why I want to think more and post again. A math textbook has an entirely different purpose than an AP European History textbook, for example. Some textbooks are references and some are meant to be read and remembered. Thanks for weighing in. More to come...