Digital versus physical textbooks

Digital textbooks versus physical textbooks

Has your K-12 school district taken advantage of digital textbooks yet? While college and university students were the first to swap physical textbooks for digital versions, K-12 schools are now joining the movement. Are digital textbooks better, though? Which do learners prefer and why? Let’s break down digital versus physical textbooks for the K-12 community.

Pros of digital textbooks for school districts

There are several reasons district leaders, teachers and learners prefer digital versus physical textbooks. Some of these benefits directly impact the school district, while others positively affect how students learn. Let’s take a look at ways digital textbooks enhance K-12 education.

Engaging features and tools for learners

Many digital textbooks include embedded features and tools that help students connect to the content and focus on what they’re learning. For example, when students are reading a life science chapter, they may be able to click on a virtual simulation or interact with maps and graphs. 

If they’re working in their math textbook, they may be able to watch a video to deepen their understanding. Audio clips are often available, too, which could help learners engage with a poem or speech in language arts. 

A chance to build executive functioning skills

Digital textbooks also help learners develop executive functioning skills. These overall skills are based on planning, monitoring and executing goals. Specific skills include organization, self-monitoring and flexibility. 

By using digital textbooks, learners can practice note-taking and highlighting to organize their learning. With embedded glossaries and formative online assessments, they can self-monitor. Digital textbooks also include links for extra practice and enrichment, giving students a choice for how they want to learn.

Affordable for school districts

Instead of purchasing physical textbooks, schools and districts can use open-source digital textbooks. You can find these digital textbooks on open educational resource (OER) sites. These are free for educators to use and are available across subjects and grade levels. 

Easy distribution across a school district

Online textbooks are also easy to distribute across a school district. Instead of needing to take the time to hand out physical textbooks, digital textbooks are shared instantly. Learners simply need to log in to their learning system to access them. 

It also makes it easy to share the exact books learners need quickly. For example, you can share Spanish versions or supplemental texts with the learners who need them. Plus, when new students arrive, they can immediately start using digital textbooks at school and at home.

Quickly updated 

Another reason online textbooks are better is that they can be updated quickly. Traditional textbooks come out with new editions every few years. When a new edition of a physical textbook is published, schools have to purchase them to keep up with current content. Then, they have to find a place to store the old editions. 

Digital textbooks, on the other hand, can be updated by the author or publisher at any point. Learners will see the updated version when they log in to view the textbook. If they download a book to view offline, they can simply download the updated version. It’s important for learners in K-12 to have updated information, whether it relates to an error being fixed or keeping the information in line with current events. 

A difference in size and space

Physical textbooks can each weigh anywhere from two to six pounds. If learners carry several textbooks at once, that weight adds up and can get quite heavy for children and teens. Digital textbooks, though, don’t weigh anything. Instead, learners simply need to carry one device, and that device can be as small as a phone.

Traditional textbooks also take up quite a bit of space in a school building. They have to be stored during the summer and also stored in classrooms during the school year. When school districts use digital textbooks versus physical textbooks, they don’t have that problem.

Easy to find information

While you can teach your learners how to find information in a textbook and continue to practice that skill, it can eat into class time. With online textbooks, learners can quickly find the information they need. Whether they use the search tool or clickable links in a table of contents, information is seconds away. This ease of access is especially helpful in giving students the chance to self-direct their own learning and build executive functioning skills in a digital environment. These skills mimic the abilities they’ll need when they head out into the world after K-12, whether it’s a college setting or a career. 

A win for the trees

Adopting digital textbooks versus physical versions also helps environmentally. Trees don’t need to be cut down to create paper since learners access the online textbooks on a device. Considering that learners need textbooks for most classes, that saves a lot of trees.

Cons of using digital textbooks — and solutions for school districts

Some educators bring up disadvantages when comparing online textbooks to traditional textbooks. While some educators have reservations, there are solutions to these issues. Let’s take a look at their arguments and ways that school districts can use digital textbooks to meet learners’ needs.

Learners get off task and distracted 

When students are learning online, especially remotely, it’s natural that some of them will get distracted and visit websites unrelated to class. If they’re working with a digital textbook online they may click over to another website or program instead of staying focused. 

A tool such as Hāpara Highlights allows teachers to provide guidance and reminders to students. It gives teachers visibility into learners’ Chrome browsing activities, allowing teachers the chance to send gentle reminders. This builds digital citizenship skills and helps learners make positive decisions when using their digital textbooks or other online resources.

Learners forget to bring their school-issued device

Sometimes learners forget their school-issued device, just like they forget homework, physical folders or permission slips. They may also forget to charge up their device in time for class. The good news is that they can access digital textbooks on different devices. 

With a tool like Hāpara Student Dashboard Digital Backpack, learners can pull up their digital textbooks across devices, even on their phone. Digital Backpack also formats the digital textbook to the specific device the learner is using. That means that learners will have no problem reading the material or taking formative assessments. 

It’s challenging to find high-quality, open-source textbooks

Another issue educators bring up in the digital versus hard copy textbook debate is the need for high-quality textbooks. The argument is that some publicly-available digital textbooks aren’t of the best quality for instruction. That’s not always the case, though. There are several sources online where K-12 educators can find high-quality digital textbooks that meet their needs. 

Another great source is Digital Backpack. Teachers have access to hundreds of open-source digital textbooks, novels, units of study and more. It also allows instructional teams to upload their own digital textbooks and create a vetted school library. With so many resources just a click away, teachers can quickly find digital textbooks to differentiate instruction. They can preview the online textbooks, share them with learners or save them for later.

Learners have trouble organizing digital textbooks and resources

Learners at any age can have difficulty juggling apps, digital files, online assessments, email, and digital projects. When online textbooks are added on top of everything else, learners can find it hard to keep organized. 

With Student Dashboard Digital Backpack, learners access all of their educational resources through one digital hub. Instead of clicking in and out of programs, files and apps, learners have everything they need in one spot, including digital textbooks. In addition, they can see all of their digital materials across classes or filter their list for a single class.

Hāpara Student Dashboard Digital Backpack allows school districts to distribute digital textbooks equitably.

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Digital Backpack example

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