The E-Book Revolution and the Education Evolution

by Nicole on July 26, 2011

The physical substratum of the written word has always been the printed page. Now, digital technology is changing everything, and the two-dimensional screen has become the hot new medium for the transmission of ideas through the use of visual language. However, in this instance the evolution of communication techniques and technology is really a parallel development; computers, e-readers and iPads are not so much replacing books as they are providing an alternative outlet for their publication and distribution.

The Good: Change is Coming

The e-book revolution is of course having an impact on college campuses. The increasing availability of college textbooks and other kinds of educational materials in digital format are being welcomed by students at this point primarily for reasons of cost. Printed college textbooks are ridiculously expensive, in part because of the way they are designed and in part because they are sold by campus bookstores that have monopolies on their individual markets. E-books promise to reduce prices considerably, and that is a big consideration for students who are on a tight budget – which includes pretty much every student on every campus throughout the known world.

Convenience is the other advantage that e-books can offer university students. Online libraries can save a lot of legwork, and carrying around an e-reader or electronic tablet is much easier than constantly having to lug a collection of heavy textbooks around in a fraying backpack.

The Bad: Student Resistance to Change
But here is a surprise – all things being equal, three out of four college students would prefer to use printed textbooks instead of the digital versions, and this is a statistic that has not changed over the past several years. A recent study carried out by the Human Centered Design and Engineering Department at the University of Washington found that less than 40% of a group of students who were given free Amazon Kindle e-book readers were still using them after a few months, as most of the students eventually went back to using printed materials and textbooks instead.

At this point, e-reader and e-book technologies still have a long way to go. Options for highlighting, note taking, text saving, and rapid skimming are limited, making e-books unwieldy and inconvenient to work with for many students. But even beyond these practical considerations – which will certainly become less relevant over time as technology improves – researchers theorize that e-books make students feel uncomfortable because they interfere with a process called cognitive mapping. This refers to the way that human beings make spatial and contextual connections in order to facilitate learning. Learners instinctively tend to rely on physical indicators such as page location or positioning relative to charts or illustrations in books to help them find information they are looking for quickly. In fact, these kinds of physical associations and relationships are intimately connected to effective learning in general, which might be why students working with e-books may feel as if they have somehow come unmoored from anything real as they attempt to read, analyze, and remember while operating in sterile virtual spaces.

A further problem with electronic literature and text is that computers, e-readers, and other types of electronic viewing screens rely on direct, radiant light sources for illumination. The human visual system evolved in an environment of reflected light, and radiant light sources such as the sun or bright indoor lighting generally cause discomfort if stared at directly. Studies have shown that radiant light actually interferes with the learning process, and that people understand more and remember more when using three-dimensional reading materials like books and magazines as opposed to studying off electronic screens. In light of these findings, the relentless effort by schools and universities to integrate all the latest technological innovations into their educational infrastructures as rapidly as possible may be to be rethought.

The Future: E-Learning
Whatever its merits or lack thereof, there is no doubt that the e-book has a significant role to play in the future of higher education. However, technological devices and applications will need to become more versatile and interactive, so students will be able to manage information in ways that are efficient, organized, and kinesthetically grounded in a manner that preserves the fluid and participatory elements of the overall educational process. The more user-friendly iPad is a device that seems to hold great promise in this regard; and indeed, some universities have begun giving them away to students for use as replacements for or supplements to traditional textbooks.

But even though improved technology will inevitably make the e-book format more practical in a college setting, it would be foolish to let e-reading sweep away a style of learning that has evolved organically over a long period of time. Technological innovation clearly has a place in higher education – but only to the extent that it can complement rather than replace established methods of learning that have repeatedly demonstrated their effectiveness.

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