Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Some problems with ebooks in schools

I’ve been doing some research into ebooks for our school during this year, and I’ve come to the conclusion that ebooks are not ready for schools.


  • No one-stop shopping:
    Each textbook and ebook publisher seems to want to use their own system for cataloging and sharing ebooks. Worse, some publishers are unwilling to share their books with other distribution methods, and at least one publisher has opted out of the ebook business completely citing “an inability to find a workable profit model.” What this means for schools is that you can’t subscribe to one service, and get all of the electronic books you might need for your school. Compare this to the print model where you can have tremendous choice in what you buy. Imagine if a traditional library was only able to share books from a single publisher.
  • Lack of standardization:
    There is no large scale agreement on what the form of an electronic book should be in. While ePub, HTML, and PDF seem to be the most popular forms, many publishers are expecting users to use their ereader, as each of them attempts to solve the problem of digital rights management independently. Some books will work on some devices, but not on others. Some books will work on any device, but require the user to have continuous Internet access.
  • Incomplete feature list:
    With a traditional paper book you can share it, annotate it, quote it, add comments, and add bookmarks. If an ebook does not contain at least these basic features, then you are trading the portability of the ebook for the quality of the interaction one has with a traditional book. Further, there are a lot of features which are not included in most ebooks at all. Given that websites allow for videos, simulations, games, and other interactivies to be included fairly easily, one wonders why most ebooks don’t include these features. How many ebooks are updated continuously as our knowledge base is improves? How many are instead just duplicates of the static textbook in digital form?
  • Terrible pricing models:
    Many publishers are using some pretty horrible pricing models for their ebooks. Many, for example, expect schools to pay individually for each copy of the ebook, requiring schools to purchase an ebook multiple times if they need to share it with multiple students simultaneously. Some publishers offer discounts on the books themselves, but many price the ebook at exactly the same as a regular print book. Some publishers even expect the ebook to expire after a certain number of uses, requiring school libraries to repurchase books. Given that the ebook doesn’t need to be printed, costs almost nothing to transport or store, and can be shipped to schools almost immediately after it is published, there needs to be better pricing of the ebooks, or publishers are gouging customers even more. Imagine what happens if you combine problem 1 with this problem? Now you have schools paying too much to too many different publishers just to maintain their current libraries. What about all of the books schools currently own? Why can’t we get digital versions of those?
  • Access to technology:
    Many students do not have access to the technology required to even use an ebook. While some schools are equipping their students with technology, in many school districts they do so at the cost of laying off teachers, libraries, and increasing student-teacher ratios. Teachers and librarians are still critical to the curation of knowledge, so that students are directed into valid and useful sources of information, rather than wandering aimlessly through the vast graveyards of information online (like Answers (dot) com for example). Wikipedia, while a useful source of information, is rarely written at a reading level useful for k to 12 students.
  • Increasing screen time:
    Teenagers already spend vast amounts of time online. It’s not totally clear what the effect of this will be for them, but if we compare it to the problems already found in kids who watch too much television, we may want to find ways to get kids to be more active, rather than giving them more reason to sit in an awkward position reading a screen. At younger ages especially, I’d like to see schools which encourage more physical activity by kids and less seat-work.
  • Not as eco-friendly as we might like:
    While a common argument for using ebooks is that they are more ecofriendly than paper books, it is worth noting that the computers which contain those ebooks use a tremendous amount of water to produce, and contain toxic chemicals which do not yet have adequate recycling mechanisms in place. In a lot of ways, we are trading one environmental problem (the destruction of forests for pulp) for another (the pollution of our ecosystems with heavy metals).
  • Maybe students don’t learn as much from them?
    While this small study suggests that students do read ebooks with similar levels of comprehension as related print resources, this other small study by some of the same authors says they do not. One of the authors, Heather Schugar, has co-authored or authored two other articles talking about the benefits of ebooks (in contrast to this article) so I recommending reading her articles as well. Heather also pointed out on Twitter that comparing the two small studies directly is probably inappropriate given how different the platforms used are.


Obviously there are advantages of ebooks which are worth noting, such as reduced loads in kids backpacks, the ability of the textbook to be more current (even if this isn’t being utilized effectively), eventual access to a wider range of materials, the ability to add more interactivity to the books (again, extremely underutilized), and the ability to customize the materials to the learning needs of the student (more benefits listed here).

Do these benefits overweigh the disadvantages associated with the current ebook industry?