George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The news media and blogosphere were abuzz last month with the news that Apple is "reinventing the textbook" through the introduction of digital textbooks available for the iPad. With the announcement has come a myriad of opinions and speculations regarding the possible repercussions of Apple's textbook reinvention for schools and for children's learning.

Many celebrate the availability of electronic textbooks for the classroom, surmising that their interactivity will make textbook content more engaging for students, their reduced cost compared to print textbooks will ease the financial burden on school budgets, and their format will literally lighten a student's load and take less of a toll on the environment.

Others, however, decry this move by Apple. They fear the possible end to traditional print books altogether, that too much control over our children's education will be in the hands of Apple, that outfitting each student with an iPad and requisite IT support will create additional financial burdens on school budgets, and that existing access gaps may be widened when some schools cannot afford the technology.

The debate over what Apple's electronic textbooks will mean for our formal education system comes at a time when we have not yet determined what tablet technology and the availability of electronic books (or "e-books") can mean for children's learning at home and other informal learning environments. Decades of research indicate a link between reading in the home and children's literacy skill development. What is not yet known is whether that link may take a different shape depending on the medium of the books that are read.

Though e-books have been available for children to read on computers for some time, they are receiving quite a bit of attention recently due to the development of new, more mobile platforms on which to view them. Survey research from Pew Research Center indicates that the number of American adults who own a tablet or e-book reader nearly doubled this past holiday season, rising from an estimated 10% of the population in December to 19% in January. Still, parent reactions to children's e-books, expressed through news media and blogs, seem to mirror the range of opinions regarding electronic textbooks: some parents love them while others adamantly keep their children away.

Studying the Changes

At Sesame Workshop's Joan Ganz Cooney Center, we are investigating how preschool-age (three- to five-year-old) children and parents read e-books together, and parental perceptions of e-books in their children's literacy development. Our research consists of three separate but interrelated studies, all exploratory. Our first study was inspired by and modeled after research conducted by Julia Parish-Morris and her colleagues, who compared parent-child pairs that read traditional print storybooks with pairs that read e-books on electronic console devices (i.e., Fisher Price). We conducted a similar comparison study, but observed our parent-child pairs as they read an e-book on an iPad as well as a print book. We observed their interactions with each other and with each book, and asked each party to describe their experiences and preferences.

Curious to learn more about the various considerations that may underlie families' selection of books across platforms, we designed a second study in which we asked parents and their preschool-age children to select a print book or e-book to read together from an assortment of options. Again, we observed these pairs as they negotiated their book choices, and interviewed each party about the features and characteristics of the books that influenced their selections. Among the families we observed and interviewed, we found that book selection was understood as a valuable tool in developing specific interests and knowledge, especially science topics such as space, weather or dinosaurs. In our sample, the interests cultivated among families tended to fall into three categories, which we have described as parent-driven interests, kid-driven interests and parent-led interests. The two parent categories reflect varying intensities of involvement and collaboration with children in identifying and following interests through book selection, while kid-driven interests refer to topics that kids themselves identify as important, thus motivating reading on that topic. Each type of selection process represented a different entry point into co-reading and topic exploration for the families.

All of the insights and questions that have arisen from our first two e-book studies have led to the third branch of this research, which we are launching today. This study -- an online survey for parents with children between two and six years old -- seeks to explore parents' perceptions and use of e-books and traditional books with their young children.

If you are a parent of a two- to six-year-old and would like to participate in this survey, please visit the JGCC parent survey site. We would be thrilled to be able to incorporate insights gained from parents who follow the Edutopia blog. Please also feel free to direct any other interested parents to our website to be included in our survey. Our goal is to include as many parents (and different perspectives) as possible!

We plan to close the survey later this spring, and will write another post discussing our survey findings this summer. Here is more about the Cooney Center's e-book line of research.

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Laura V Rhinehart's picture

I hate seeing school bookrooms full of heavy, barely used textbooks, simply because a new edition came out. If students can easily upload new editions to an ebook reader, this may solve that problem. But, I imagine textbook publishers won't make as much money from ebook textbooks.

Bernice German's picture
Bernice German
Math Whisperer

Here is one example from Algebra, known to be the gatekeeper for high school graduation and college. The order of operations is a critical topic. Currently, students memorize the order, possibly helped by a mnemonic device, PEMDAS. Contrast that to being able to see an animated story that makes the order of operations actually MAKE SENSE.

Millions of students have difficulty with the historical tradition of memorization. Well designed digital textbooks in math offer a road to success for these students.

Andy Weisskoff's picture

I'm a parent of two high school students and a recent publisher of an ebook geared toward middle grade kids. My recent experience with publishing is that ebook writers can get the same if not more royalty per sale over a paper copy, because the cost of paper publishing is so high. The future of kids getting the info contained in a textbook on a pad or other device is inevitable. Lighter backpacks are just one of the huge benefits. I imagine it will be challenging during the transition from paper to electronic as richer communities will be able to afford the readers first and poorer communities will be using the leftover and increasingly out of date textbooks. Right? And for now, computer devices are too fragile for at least my kids' level of attention to property. My son and daughter both broke their cells within the first two months of owning them. The newest technology is the most fragile, I guess. We'll see if Apple and then others can make readers/pads indestructible.

The other comment I wanted to make was will our kids be using readers or other devices for reading fiction -- assigned in classes or for pleasure. I got involved/curious as a result of publishing Glass Palace (shameless commerce!) on Amazon. I intended to use the e-book publication as a stepping stone to getting it published in paper. But I've discovered a rather lively debate about the future of where our kids will read as a result. While I love the feel of paper, I don't see how this trend toward having information on devices would stop short at fiction and for any age. (Except for the breakable devices issue, which will soon be overcome, I bet).

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