Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently told the National Press Club that “textbooks should be obsolete” and replaced with e-readers and multimedia web sites. While an appealing idea, digital materials are still unproven as an effective learning platform, according a New York Times opinion pieceby Justin Hollander, assistant professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.
Hollander wonders if examples such as American cities bringing back streetcar lines after years of dismantling to make room for highways or the way consumers have started buying vinyl records again suggests that “We shouldn’t jump at a new technology simply because it has advantages.”
Hollander points to a study by Tufts colleague Maryanne Wolfe, an expert on the origins of reading and language learning, that looks at the effects of digital reading on learning. The results so far have been mixed. Her concern is that Internet reading could be the kind of distraction that cancels out other benefits from web-based e-learning.
Some of the other benefits of digital learning material can also be called into question. Hollander write that roller backpacks are a solution to the problem of students toting around heavy books. He adds that with all the talk of the cost savings of e-textbooks, very little is said about the price of the device, technical support, or software updates.
It took just two days for Dan Eldridge of TeleRead to respond to Hollander.
“It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that digital books are ‘still unproven,’” Eldridge says. “But Hollander’s essay makes a good (if clichéd and overused) point: When advancements in new technologies lead us to discard the old ways of doing things, we often come to regret it. And while Hollander probably is guilty of making way too much out of a couple of sentences uttered at a press club, the point he makes may eventually lead to a conversation that’s very much worth having.”