Guest author April Cullom from Cullom’s Corner shares her experiences using digital textbooks in the classroom – the pros, cons, and everything between.

Thinking of going totally paperless with Digital Textbooks? An honest review of the experience - the good, the bad, and the ugly!

The Social Studies Department at my school decided two years ago to adopt new textbooks. Ultimately the district decided to purchase digital textbook licenses for our students instead of physical textbooks. Having worked with digital textbooks for two years now, I can definitely say there are good and bad aspects to this choice. Check out my Good, Bad, & Ugly lists below:

 Digital Textbooks: The Good

1. Students and parents can access this textbook ANYWHERE, including their phones. The excuse of, “I forgot my textbook,” can’t be used anymore.
2. Teachers can assign much more engaging homework from the textbook! These digital textbooks have all sorts of interactive activities that the students can benefit from. There are tons of cool features like video clips, primary sources, interactive maps, and self-assessment opportunities for students that students can assign as homework. No more questions in the back of the chapter!
3. There are no damaged or lost textbooks.
4. As a teacher, I didn’t have any end of the year textbook paperwork to complete.
5. The differentiation is great. There are opportunities for students to click on words they don’t know & get the definition. There is a Spanish version as well as a way for the textbook to be read aloud to the students. They can utilize as much or as a little of the supplemental resources as they would like or feel they need. It really enables teachers to help struggling students.

Digital Textbooks: The Bad

1. If a students does not have Internet access at home, then they do not have access to all these awesome resources.*
2. Students sometimes have problems logging into the online textbook whether through user-error or a fault of the online service.
3. When the Wifi doesn’t work in class, you are without a textbook. This is great fun when you have planned for the students to utilize them that day! Plan B!*
4. Students get easily distracted when using digital devices. If they are at school using the device, it is less likely but we are all tempted to click on interesting stories, videos, and pictures that then lead to more interesting stories, videos, & picture, and we look up an hour later to realize that our main objective was not completed. Keeping students on task in class can be challenging. Their focus at home can be even more difficult to obtain.
5.  A textbook is self-explanatory for students once they are in high school. “Turn to page 162,” is pretty simple to say & students know what to do. However, a digital textbook is not quite as simple. I have to take time out of class to teach the students to log into the online service and help them discover the features it includes.
*This was resolved by providing a class set of textbooks and extra textbooks for those few students that do not have home Internet access.

Digital Textbooks: The Ugly

1. Just because a student has home Internet access does not mean it is reliable. It is hard to deny a student when they claim their Internet was down and they could not access their textbook. This becomes an easy excuse for students to use. Instead of “I forgot my textbook,” it became, “I couldn’t login for some reason.” This is impossible to prove or disprove as a teacher.
2. Despite all the differentiation resources, digital textbooks are more complicated thus Beginning ELLs and lower-level Special Education students often struggled with the basic access aspect whereas a textbook is much simpler for them to access.
3. Many students really didn’t like using the digital textbooks. Despite being known as the “technology generation,” many of them struggled with basic technology aspects, like trouble-shooting, and preferred using the physical textbooks. I had less than 10 physical books that I was allowed to give out so it didn’t matter their preference, they were stuck with a digital book.
4. Parents were not very happy with the digital textbooks. Parents were frustrated because unlike a regular physical textbook, they could open it easily & make their students do homework. However, if a student is claiming they “can’t login” then the parents are really left in a bind. There isn’t much they can do. Since we paid per digital book, I couldn’t allow the password to be put online, which meant the parent had to make contact with me to get the information if their student didn’t provide it to them.

5. It took me 1 1/2 years to finally get access to one of my digital textbooks. During this time, my students were not able to have a textbook to take home. I spent MANY hours trouble-shooting with the textbook company and my Administration ultimately had to get involved because we were not able to access the product we had paid for. We finally figured out that it was a technical glitch in how the publisher had put us into the system. Boy, was this fun!As you can tell, there are definitely great aspects of digital textbooks but there are always going to be the downsides as well.

I don’t discourage anyone from purchasing them but I do think  you need to be aware of the challenges and don’t think you can go completely digital at this time. You will definitely want to purchase SOME physical textbooks for those without Internet or for times when technology fails.

We often times think that technology will solve all our problems when in reality, there are always going to be issues but they will just present themselves in a different way. So don’t expect digital textbooks to solve your problems but don’t be hesitant to give them a try and see the benefits they can provide for you and your students.

April Cullom has been teaching high school social studies for 10 years. She teaches 10th grade Colonial U.S. History, 12th grade U.S. Government, & 12th grade Advanced Placement United States Government & Politics. She resides near Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, James. She recently started her own blog, Cullom Corner, and Teachers Pay Teachers Store, Cullom Corner. You can also connect with her via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+.

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