By Susan Matteucci

What if textbooks were not actually… books? Online textbooks are being used more and more with the switch to technology. So what will you have? A book on Holt McDougal’s online site? A scanned PDF of the actual book pages? It’s all available at the click of a button. Sometimes it’s broken up chapter by chapter. Sometimes you have to scroll. Sometimes there are online activities. And it’s all kept right where kids are anyway: on their devices.

Honors physics books now have great orange stickers that say “CLASSROOM COPY DO NOT REMOVE”. These stickers were added at the start of the year with the integration of online textbooks. (Photo by Susan Matteucci)

Andover High School has taken a huge leap in online textbooks this year. For every science class at the high school, the old textbooks have been either thrown out or stamped with a bright orange sticker with the injunction CLASSROOM COPY DO NOT REMOVE. As a  replacement, each and every student has received subscriptions to the online versions. Around the high school, many students seem to be asking the same thing: why the change?

Mr. Sanborn, head of the science department, explains that, with the digital books, “we have access to a lot of online resources that aren’t available with paper.”  He also points out that online textbooks are more up to date, so in areas like science, that are always changing, a flexible platform where chapters can be updated seems like the way to go.

But students are more focused on other aspects of online textbooks. As freshman Courtney Duffy puts it, “I think that online is kind of the way to go because you don’t have to carry around books.”

This switch is, quite literally, taking weight off of student’s shoulders. Not only do students no longer need to carry these large science books to and from school, now they don’t have to worry about losing or damaging the books and having to pay for them. A December 6, 2017 Huffington Post article by Ethan Senack tells us that textbooks can range from $50 to $300. With online textbooks, students will never have to pay for a textbook in high school. As long as they have internet, they have a textbook.

So what’s the problem? For one thing, online texts don’t always work. “We have had some problems with students accessing the freshman physical science textbook,” says Sanborn. “It’s caused some frustration.”

“I think now there are definitely a lot of kinks,” said Duffy. “They should work on that.”

There are also no alternative options. There are no device-free weekends in an AHS student’s future. “Unfortunately, we don’t have books to give out,” said Sanborn. “We have class sets of books, [but] we don’t have extra books that I can issue to students.” This also assumes that students have computers and wifi available at home to get to their online textbooks.

Ms. Martin, a guidance counselor, said that online textbooks can be “a huge challenge, depending on the resources available.” She said, “We are very lucky here to have laptops that we can rent out during the day if students don’t have their own. But students have to return them after, and those students don’t usually have a laptop to use at home for homework. It can be extremely challenging and oftentimes stress provoking for students.”  

Children who are not as wealthy as others, who do not have access to home internet, will have to stay very late at school or go to a library or community center to do the homework they were once able to do at home. These kids could have jobs that keep them busy until late at night when all of these community centers are closed. When will they do their homework? Even problems that are not financial–for instance, a parent taking away a computer, or a power outage–could stop kids from doing the homework, or studying for the test, that they need to help their grade.

Despite these problems, students seem to enjoy the switch to online. “I like them,” said senior Sabine Haskell, “I find them easier to use in general. And it’s easier to just have the book with you all the time. Or whenever you have your computer, that is.”

But what about problems that students would turn a blind eye to? Could it be possible that students are learning less from online textbooks than they would be from paper copies?

“It’s nice to be able to search for specific words with command F,” said senior Sam Bozorgzadeh.

Let’s say a student is given a reading and a worksheet for homework. The worksheet asks for the definition of certain words or concepts. With a physical textbook, the student would have to at least skim the reading. With an online textbook, all a student has to do is hit command F, enter in the vocab, and the computer will highlight and take the student to that section of the book. A great trick for regular online searches, but does it help kids really learn the material?  

Command F is only the beginning: a computer provides plenty of shortcuts for students to take advantage of.

“It’s difficult to take paper notes, I think, from an online textbook. But typed notes are a lot quicker,” says Bozorgzadeh.

Why would typed notes be so much quicker? Copy and paste. When teachers tell you to bring in solid notes on each chapter, wouldn’t it be easier to simply copy and paste sections of the book and rewrite portions to make the wording your own? Instead of writing or typing the same things out from scratch? With physical textbooks, students don’t have a choice in the matter.

An April 17, 2016 report by NPR’s James Doubek compared online and paper notes. Doubek writes, “The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”

In online notes, students are able to mindlessly copy down all information, while taking notes by hand requires students to pick and choose the most important topics.

An article published April 21, 2016 by Huffington Post’s Emily Batchford says, “Writing by hand appears to improve our ability to remember things.” In the article, it is shown that writing by hand helps us “encode the information, which in turn leads to richer memory.”

Online textbooks make online notes easier and more appealing to students. But these notes are actually very detrimental to a child’s education.  

Should we make the switch to online textbooks? Or is the internet best kept to social media and Google search? Even though they leave much to be desired, through all the kinks, short-sightings, and loopholes “this was an initiative that the superintendent directed,” said Sanborn, “because he wanted our students to have the most up-to-date resources.”