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An e-disaster in the making?

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Esther Cepeda
January 23, 2012
— As the future’s promise of e-textbooks hurtles toward us, let’s discuss what will be needed to keep them from becoming mere electronic clutter on the virtual bookshelf.

I have about 30 textbooks lying around my house. Ranging from first-grade to post-graduate level, the oldest book is 45 years old and the newest was published in 2010.


In flipping through the assortment, the thing that strikes me most about the older books when compared to newer editions is how much larger the font sizes have gotten, plus the number of photographs and illustrations on each page.


Textbooks have been watered down to the point where even graduate-level course texts are compact, busy, image-filled and bold-text laden. Call it persistent visual distraction. Call-out boxes, sidebars and full-page supplements make for the feel of constant interruption.


Is it any wonder that students who have used such learning materials throughout their academic careers find regular books, with their vast expanses of unbroken word passages, boring?


Enter the multimedia, Web-enabled electronic textbook (coming to a school with the funds to get tablet computers into students’ hands near you).


Now, it would be one thing if it were already compulsory for teacher training programs and professional development initiatives to give classroom instructors a clear understanding of how printed classroom texts are designed and how they should teach students to use them.


Instead, rare is the educator with a deep understanding of a course’s textbook.


And it’s even rarer for a teacher to give step-by-step textbook tours with the aim of getting students to understand how to really use them as a tool for reading about concepts in context, for conducting critical analysis, and as a reference.


Knowing this, it appears that the educational promise of electronic textbooks will require a staggering amount of costly training to implement effectively.


Scores of educators who are tech-averse, are not inclined to teach with multimedia or are committed to their long-ago perfected lesson plans would first have to be trained on how to use both the electronic hardware and the application software.


Then teachers would have to commit to teaching students how to use the technology properly as educational tools.


Under the right circumstances, tablets and electronic textbooks can turn the task of sitting still through long sessions of direct instruction and silent reading into student-driven inquiries that play to pupils’ learning-style strengths.


Under the wrong circumstances, video and Web links will serve as entertaining time-wasters while search functions will make bold text—and the skill of using a book’s index—obsolete for completing worksheets.


And in our “get technology into the classroom now, now, now” education reform environment, guess which scenario I predict will prevail once the e-gadgetry-for-improved-academic-performance cult gains traction in a majority of public schools.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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