A digital textbook is a digital book or e-book intended to serve as the text for a class. Digital textbooks may also be known as e-textbooks or e-texts. Digital textbooks are a major component of technology-based education reform. They may serve as the texts for a traditional face-to-face class, an online course or degree, or massive open online courses (MOOCs).
There are many potential advantages to digital textbooks. They may offer lower costs, make it easier to monitor student progress, and are easier and cheaper to update when needed. Open source e-textbooks may offer the opportunity to create free, modifiable textbooks for basic subjects, or give individual teachers the opportunity to create e-texts for their own classrooms. They may offer better access to quality texts in the developing world. For this reason, many schools and colleges around the world have made the implementation of digital textbooks a central component of education policy. For example, in South Korea, reading materials in all public schools will be digitized by 2015. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission aims for every student to be able to access e-texts by 2017.
However, the transition to e-textbooks is costly, complex and controversial. Students express a strong preference for printed materials in many surveys and across cultures. Many interconnected factors, from device access, to digital literacy, to teaching methods affect the implementation of digital textbooks in the classroom. Issues of overall value, book quality, privacy, and intellectual property have yet to be resolved.
Because digital textbooks must be accessed through an electronic device, such as a laptop or e-reader, schools and colleges must determine how to provide access to all students. Many school districts are now offering "one-to-one" technology programs, in which a tablet or laptop is issued to each student. This ensures that all of the devices meet the same requirements (such as memory or software) and that all the devices can be networked, monitored and upgraded together. However, the one-to-one model also imposes significant costs on school districts, and brings up issues of privacy and personal use.
An alternative to one-to-one is to ask students to use their own electronic devices in class. This is called Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or, sometimes, Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT). BYOD allows students to choose their preferred device for studying. Compared to one-to-one, it decreases the technology and maintenance costs for institutions. But not all students' devices may be compatible with the digital textbooks require for a class, and the devices may not be able to network with each other. A BYOD approach may also count out students who cannot afford a computer, e-reader or smartphone.
A major selling point of digital textbooks is that they offer the opportunity for students to access multimedia content, such as embedded videos, interactive presentations and hyperlinks. Tests and other assessments can be included in the textbook, classmates can work together, and student progress can be tracked. Touchscreen technology offers students the chance to participate in projects, research or experiments. This may offer a different or better learning experience than printed textbooks. Digitization also promises to offer improved access to textbooks for student with disabilities. For example, high-contrast displays, or text-to-speech programs can help visually impaired students use the same textbooks their classmates use. The creation of interactive and customizable content is an important part of digital textbook development. Interactive digital content is costly to produce, however, and research on learning outcomes is still in the preliminary stages.
The concepts of open access and open source support the idea of open textbooks, digital textbooks that are free (gratis) and easy to distribute, modify and update (libre). Schools, teachers or professors may design their own open textbooks by gathering open access scholarly articles or other open access resources into one text or one curriculum. Open textbooks offer affordable access, especially to basic and common information, and pose a challenge to traditional models of textbook publishing. Modifiable or community edited textbooks may also be difficult to establish as credible or scholarly sources.
Other models for digital textbook publishing are more traditional. Textbook publishers may offer digital textbooks or digital curriculums that are standardized across classrooms, easier to update, and compliant with national standards, teaching methods or goals. This approach also offers pitfalls. License or renewal fees for digital textbooks may impose unexpected costs for institutions. For example, in 2013, the LA Unified School District announced that it would face an additional $60 million to license the curriculum for its one-to-one iPad program.
Though many governments and school districts are making large investments in digital textbooks, adoption is slow. According to data from Bowker Market Research, in the spring semester of 2013, only 3% of college students used a digital textbook as their primary course material. In multiple studies, strong majorities of college students, teens, and children continue to express a preference for printed books. Furthermore, there is conflicting information about how digital textbooks affect learning, cognition and retention. However, students are growing more exposed to digital textbooks, and new research suggests that student performance is about the same whether students work from digital or printed texts.
The inclusive nature of digital textbooks has the potential to powerfully meet the diverse learning needs of students who are exceptional.
Research suggests that reading on paper still boasts unique advantages.