Summer 2010 | Online Exclusives

E-Textbooks to iPads: Do Teenagers Use Them?

‘... I didn’t anticipate the heated debates we would have about the impact of these emerging digital platforms or the intensity of our discussions about the future of e-textbooks, journalism, and reading in general.’

By Esther Wojcicki

In February I happened across Josh Quittner’s story “The Future of Reading” in Fortune magazine and thought students in my high school journalism and RELATED ARTICLES
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English classes would enjoy it since they are concerned about the future of journalism. I sensed that his article would be controversial—given his perspective that reading tablets are likely to revive print journalism’s content—but I didn’t anticipate the heated debates we would have about the impact of these emerging digital platforms or the intensity of our discussions about the future of e-textbooks, journalism, and reading in general.

Students hold strong and passionate opinions about e-textbooks. While a majority dislikes e-textbooks, about 20 percent believe that they are the future—and should be.

Perhaps I should have predicted such a reaction given that early in the school year many of these students had written a fiery editorial about e-textbooks in their social studies classes. In part it read, “… online textbooks hinder study habits and force the use of computers. … and are detrimental to learning and inconvenient.” The editorial concluded with these words: “If the school wishes to cultivate the use of e-books, it should at the very least offer students the option to continue using the old, hardcover books.”

I thought things had calmed down in the intervening six months as the students had become accustomed to using e-textbooks. Soon we discovered that was not the case. Several students said that the only reason they would want an e-textbook was if it has “added value, like videos or interactivity.” “We learn better from real textbooks,” most of them said. E-textbooks might work better for math and science, some said, because it appears those e-textbooks are likely to be interactive.

At one point, we did a straw poll with the option of a free Kindle with all their books loaded on it or their old textbooks. The result: 100 percent voted for their heavy, old textbooks. 

This overwhelming show of support for print on paper shocked me.

Students were adamant that it was “much easier to learn” from a textbook. (Several students did say that they don’t like carrying heavy books.) With hardcover books, they told me, they can highlight sections and flip through and scan pages more easily; reviewing the highlighted pages helps them remember facts. Portability also was an important factor: With a textbook they could study in random places like at after-school games or practices or they could take it with them to a friend’s house, and no one would ever want to steal it, unlike a Kindle. They said that digital devices in general were hard on the eyes, hard to read outdoors, required dealing with a battery, and are fragile.

Meet the Skeptics: Teenagers

I grew concerned that the students were classifying all reading material into the same category so I decided to break our discussion into four parts—textbooks, news, magazines, novels. This helped to clarify the issues and calmed the conversation. Here’s their view of the other categories:

  • News: My students overwhelmingly preferred the Internet. They want the story fast and short but they preferred to lounge about and read the newspaper on the weekends. They like to relax with the paper just as their parents do so they wanted both options. Kids claimed they read a greater variety of articles in newspapers; online, they read just what they target.

  • Magazines: Timeliness was not an issue. “Who would want to snuggle up with a laptop on the beach or in bed to read a 2,000-word article?” they asked rhetorically. The answer among them was no one. They all liked the feel of paper and being able to flip through the magazine. They felt that magazines are a leisure activity and they like reading them in hard copy.

  • Novels: Opinion was split on novels. Some kids thought they wouldn’t mind using a Kindle; others said no. They said if they needed to mark up the book for school they would rather have a book.

Our discussions began before the iPad was released, and few students could afford to buy one once they went on sale. Some had gone to the Apple store to try it out and liked it but still did not feel compelled to buy one. Their general consensus was “It looks cool, but I don’t know what I would use it for. It is too big to put in my pocket and I already have an iPod.”

Even Steve Jobs has indicated that he isn’t sure what consumers are going to use the iPad for, according to Lev Grossman in Time magazine. Those few students interested in buying one said things like they “want to be the first one to have it” or “it looks cool for games.” But none want to read magazines or novels on it or get their textbooks on it. They don’t see it as a “game changer,” as Walt Mossberg wrote in his gushing column in The Wall Street Journal, “Apple iPad Review: Laptop Killer? Pretty Close,” parts of which I read to my students. Kids who had tried it at the store complained about the keyboard, about the fact that the keys are so big someone (like their parents) could see what they are typing, that it did not have Adobe Flash, and that they could not watch their favorite program on Hulu. 

These kids do not see it as a replacement for their laptop or netbook but as a separate digital species that was as yet unclassified. Their main complaints are its size (too big) and that it isn’t a phone. They see the iPad as a good device for games and something they would want to give to their grandparents who “need to have big type and like to look at pictures.” They also think it would be a good device for their younger siblings since the screen is so big and they could access picture books.

As I listened, I wondered why they are so reluctant to progress. Do they really find it easier to learn from a textbook and more pleasant to read a novel they can hold in their hands? Only time will tell.
For further resources on this topic, see "E-Readers and Tablets" in our Digital Library »
I asked my son-in-law, Gregor Schauer, an Internet analyst, for his thoughts on what I am hearing. “They are just wrong. … just plain wrong. They don’t know because they can’t even conceptualize what is coming,” he said. In the long term he might be right, but so far the teens in my classes don’t even want to conceptualize. They are happy with their iPod, especially with its latest features.

Clearly the iPad arouses conflicting opinions, as New York Times technology columnist David Pogue observed when he wrote that “[in] 10 years of reviewing tech products … I’ve never seen a product as polarizing as Apple’s iPad.” Pogue classified people into two groups: the haters, who tend to be techies, and the fans, who tend to be regular people. We can now add one more group: the skeptics, otherwise known as teenagers.


3 Comments on E-Textbooks to iPads: Do Teenagers Use Them?
Barbara Barnes says:
August 4, 2010 at 9:07am
I am currently engaged in research regarding students' reaction to textbooks versus other media. This was triggered by my experience of teaching at Further Education level in the UK, where the majority of students did everything they could to avoid picking up a conventional textbook. Consequently, I was overjoyed to read the reactions of your students and wholeheartedly agree that whether for research or relaxation, you cannot beat a 'proper' book!"
Ben Betts says:
July 14, 2010 at 6:15am
I would echo Gene's comment; your son-in-law is right. One issue that wasn't really covered was that of cost. I believe that publishing, specifically educational publishing, is about to undergo a sea-change that is reflected somewhat by the music industry. In the music biz, CD's were super-seeded by applications such as iTunes, which digitized the purchase and made micro-payments easier to achieve. But, in turn, iTunes looks likely to be overhauled by new models like Spotify, which delivers the world of music content to you on-demand, for a subscription fee. Imagine if the world of textbook publishing went this way - no longer do you need to pay out hundreds of $$$ on a single textbook, but you subscribe to a publishers complete back catalogue of content for a monthly fee. This would include not just text, but videos, audio and interactive content. New devices like the iPad will be the target devices to consume this sort of delivery medium in my opinion. In these terms it is incorrect to think of a choice between a textbook and an e-textbook. They simply won't be the same thing.
gene cassidy says:
July 5, 2010 at 10:35am
I agree with your son-in-law. I worked for a newspaper for years. One of the most trifling yet contentious recurring issues was what comic strips to run. In the early 1990s I think it was, our paper was looking to "modernize" its comic-strip content. The idea seems so silly now. Any reporter or editor could look at the many submissions we had and email the editor in chief to tell him which ones we liked. We also ran each comic for a week in an open spot on the comics page. I liked "Dilbert." The editor said to me, "I'd keep that to myself. Nobody else thinks it's funny. In fact, people hate it." Regardless of what one thinks of Dilbert, it taught me that dislike doesn't equal failure. As far as Dilbert goes, dislike apparently doesn't even equal dislike. When I hear that 100 percent of students voted for textbooks over e-textbooks, I suspect that they are being honest and sincere. But I agree with your son-in-law, that they can't conceptualize coming changes. Twenty years ago, people apparently couldn't conceptualize Dilbert.
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