Digital Era: A Case of Textbook Controversy

Coming from a fairly old-fashioned middle school, I was astounded at the beginning of the year by the fact that all my STEM classes implemented online textbooks into their curriculum. In contrast, my French class welcomed all of us with three physical textbooks and workbooks. Nearly one year ago, I carried a backpack that was half my size, filled with a 20-pound book load, every day to school. Nowadays, having packed a light, waterproof backpack stuffed with a few notebooks, I am in good shape for school. While these online textbooks have indeed saved my back, I cannot help but yearn for those hardcopy books that accompanied me for 14 years. When I asked my math teacher if there was any way I could get a hard copy of my textbook rather than an online version, my request was politely denied. One week later, an Amazon order from my parents came in, and I ended up with two identical copies: one digital, one physical. I believe that Andover, a school that strives to be accessible, student-oriented, and understanding, should provide all students with the choice of online or hardcopy textbooks for their courses.

 The other day, I conducted a survey on Instagram targeting Andover students, simply asking for their preference: online textbooks or hardcopy. Out of the 75 Andover students who voted, hardcopy surpassed online by 19 votes. I received several responses from people about their experiences with textbooks that attested to my prediction that hardcopy books were favored. One reply read, “I like the convenience of online books, but hardcopy books are the only ones I actually am able to focus and study with.” Another read, “online books are conveyable but much harder to flip through.” I am able to sympathize with these inconveniences all too well.

 At the start of the year, many a teacher of mine proposed for us to download a PDF version of the book rather than access a link to the website. Now, by itself, this seems a minuscule distinction. Yet, one explanation for this preference is that PDFs serve as the closest version of an electronic “hardcopy book.” Many ebooks on the market today come in a package–they’re interactive, technical, almost “game-like” with buttons that bring you from one page to the next. It almost seems as if you, the reader, are not reading a textbook, but rather a description of a piece of artwork in a museum… or accessing a scientific simulation on the internet. PDFs, on the other hand, are essentially digital scans of books–pages and pages of readings that can be read in the same way one reads a physical book. With teachers leaning toward PDFs rather than ebooks from a database, this signifies that some teachers may be sculpting their syllabi so that they resemble traditional textbooks as much as possible. As much as this plan sounds promising, I believe that online and hardcopy books cannot be considered on an equal level. 

While one computer might hold all the references you need for school, staring at a screen for hours and hours in preparation for a class is exhausting and distracting. Not only that, but without blue light glasses, your eyes are easily exposed to dangerous levels of blue light, potentially affecting your health over time. The practicality of having pieces of paper bound to two hardcovers is unparalleled; no PDF document or website will ever imitate the action of putting your right hand behind a page and using your left hand to flip through the pages you wish to refer back to. In a study in 2016, scientists Mueller and Oppenheimer proved that notes that are taken on paper are often compressed and less verbatim, and therefore already processed by the mind beforehand. Conversely, notes online can be easily copy-and-pasted anywhere and studied before that initial processing, eventually lowering the efficiency of a period of study. 

Don’t get me wrong–online textbooks remove a literal heavy burden off my shoulders. However, they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. One solution to this nonconformity is for the school to implement a plan where each student is granted a choice. This will ensure that the 63 percent of students who voted for “hardcopy” receive the optimal learning experience. Sadly, this solution is not trouble-proof. It places a huge disadvantage on students who are assigned electronically-born textbooks. Yet, it is important to note that ebooks were introduced to the market less than fifty years ago while hardcopy books have been in store for almost 20 times the amount of time. The odds of a book on paper being converted to online are much higher than a book being born online. This means that there is also a much higher chance of an electronically—born textbook having an equivalent–a different book, but generally the same content— on paper. Hence, if this problem were to arise, avoiding using electronically-born textbooks or selecting books with hardcopy equivalents could be two potential solutions. For now, though, let’s save our imaginations for the future, take the first step, and let students have a say in “online, or hardcopy?”