Saturday, August 28, 2010

More Thoughts on Digital Textbooks

Earlier in the week I posted a quick thought about whether digital textbooks might be a mistake for today's students. The idea came to me after reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The data in the book that sparked this idea for me is that the Internet, as wonderful as it is, actually may be rewiring our brains. How? The Internet is full of links, videos and other distractions that cause or brains to lose focus. While reading pages from books, our brains become engrossed and engaged. While reading pages on the Internet, our brains fight against distractions constantly. For example, every time we read an article, a blog post, or some other text on the Internet with a hyperlink, our brains stop momentarily to decide whether or not to click on the link. It is not always a conscious decision, necessarily, but it is a decision and a distraction nonetheless. This stopping and restarting affects the brain's ability to absorb information. This effect has led to a change in the attention span and ability to concentrate in people who are plugged in constantly to the Internet. Their brains are being rewired.

If we take this research and apply it to textbooks, we may have a problem. Here is my line of thinking. I worry that a digital textbook with interactive elements, links, embedded videos and the like, may actually inhibit a student's ability to concentrate on the reading material and, therefore, inhibit a student's ability to commit the information in the text to memory.

My good friend and teacher-extraordinaire, Shawn, pointed out with a comment on the last post on this topic that a textbook for him would be more of a resource rather than a primary source of information (not primary source as in primary and secondary sources). This made me think even more. I totally see Shawn's point that a digital textbook used to support or reinforce concepts covered in class could be enhanced by all the digital bells and whistles and could then enhance a student's learning experience. I can see this happening especially in math and science, again if the digital textbook is used to support or reinforce concepts used in class. I can also see language courses benefiting from digital textbooks. In math, science and second languages, students rarely are required to read large chunks of the textbook and then commit the material to memory in one sitting.

Conversely, in courses like British Literature or AP European History, the assignments from the textbooks or novels often are read before the material is broken down and expanded upon in class. In these situations, I think a digital textbook (or novel) full of links and other interactive elements could be detrimental to a student's attempts to read for comprehension. Certainly media or interactive elements could be assigned to students later, even immediately following the reading, to enhance or illustrate the concepts from a reading assignment. Having irresistible links and other media embedded in the text, though, absolutely would lure students away from Beowulf or a chapter about the Agricultural Revolution.

There are huge advantages to digital textbooks in general. Some are totally customizable. Many are less expensive than traditional textbooks. Some are free. Digital textbooks certainly help reduce the amount of books students have to haul from place to place. I just think it would be wise to consider some of Carr's ideas before making the decision to replace all traditional textbooks with digital textbooks.


Eric said...

Interesting post. I wonder if the re-wiring of the brain would be a such a bad thing. I know that when I started exploring Web 2.0, I was excited, yet also informationally overwhelmed. I have read some books on how to manage information in our social networking world, and feel that I have "re-wired" my 45 yr old brain to be more efficient with "bit literacy" skills. Now...I don't know how that would translate if I were a student taking a course with a digital textbook, but I have faith in the flexibility of our brains that we would be able to adapt.

Nathan Barber said...

I agree that a rewiring isn't necessarily a bad thing. You make a great point. Both books I've referenced seemd to indicate that our adult brains can be rewired to be creative, etc., based on the training we give our brains. The point of course is that our kids' brains are already wired a particular way because they are digital natives and the digital world is all they've ever known. The REwiring of our brains by the Internet occurs for us, the digital immigrants, because our brains were originally wired differently. Thanks for the comment.