Print Books Still Play an Important Role in Learning Experiences

By User:David Monniaux, flickr user 007 Tanuki, User:Jorge Ryan, and User:ZX95 - File:Uncut book p1190369.jpg , File:Used books 001.jpg , and File:Austria - Admont Abbey Library - 1407.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Photo Credit: Wikipedia, David Monniaux, flickr user 007 Tanuki, and Jorge Ryan.

In my time blogging at Exploring the Past I’ve gone on a sort of mini-crusade against conventional understandings within popular media about millennials’ relationship to digital technology and the ways they acquire knowledge. See here, here, and here for examples. Common arguments in this discourse include the belief that millennials acquire knowledge about the world in fundamentally different ways than older people; that old, conventional mediums of learning such as reading books or visiting museums are of little interest to millennials; and that we educators must fundamentally overhaul our approach to working with young students. We must embrace “disruption” in order to unlock the potential of young people. In the teaching world you might hear about the incorporation of digital technology in the form of iPads, computers, and ebooks as a way of making classes more hands-on and interactive, whereas in the public history world you might hear some vague jargon-y gobbledygook about “engagement” or “meeting the needs of a new generation” to get them to visit museums, National Parks, and the like.

I don’t buy into the “disruption” hype that says we must dismantle everything and that we must completely do away with books, textbooks, or lectures (although I agree that educators can and do abuse the lecture medium to their students detriment). The logic of “disruption” fits into a long history of what one scholar describes as “giddy prophecies” about new developments in media technology. Thomas Edison predicted in 1922 that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and . . . in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Similar prophecies have been uttered in recent years about floppy disks, CD-ROMS, and computers.

Well, it turns out that at least a few traditional educational mediums are resilient. A forthcoming study by linguistics professor Naomi Baron asserts that 92 percent of students and millennials prefer print books over ebooks, and that print publications still play an integral role in educational classrooms regardless of grade level. It turns out that print publications still have an important educational purpose nearly 100 years after Edison predicted their eventual demise. Furthermore, millennials actually read more than older adults!

Don’t get me wrong: I support the implementation of digital technology in both formal and informal learning environments, but I’ve always believed that such implementations need to be done with an understanding that these mediums are merely tools. They need to be used carefully towards a larger goal of making our students critical thinkers who ask good questions and demonstrate sharp, analytical thinking. If an “interactive” activity doesn’t accomplish these goals, then it’s worthless in my view. Rather than debating whether or not digital technology should play a role in education (it can and should), we need to discuss what approaches with digital tools work and which ones don’t. And again, the end goal is key. I believe Sam Wineburg is mostly correct when he asserts, with regards to the history classroom, that:

I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as . . . making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to think rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out of the class having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.


9 thoughts on “Print Books Still Play an Important Role in Learning Experiences

  1. Print is dead. The future of education is in e-textbooks and mobile applications. There is a resistance factor involved in this, but as my research for my doctorate is showing me, a lot of that is triggered by instructors who are basically Luddites when it comes to change of any kind. I am still in the research phase of the project, so am still sorting out information as it develops, but one of the initial literature review themes that stood out was the failure of professors to use pedagogical principles in using the e-textbooks.

    They basically tried to ignore the e-textbooks and continue to use them the same way as a psychical textbook which is where the problems begin. You can then add in problems with access (which is being solved with VitalSource eliminating the need for constant online access) and you see where some of the resistance is generated.

    There is a current of resistance to the use of e-textbooks by all involved that actually stems from the basis tendency of people to resist change. That is only going to be overcome by tossing out the physical books and using the e-textbooks. It is sort like making the change to metric system. Just make the change and stop using the antiquated methods.

    1. I can envision a future classroom without textbooks, especially with the development of online textbooks like American Yawp, but I don’t see print books as a whole going away anytime soon.

  2. I teach two courses on immigration law at Hofstra University School of Law. In the doctrinal course I use a standard casebook which costs 200 dollars. In the advanced course I use free scholarly resources available on Westlaw. Many of the students prefer the textbook, and some complain about the online materials even though they save a couple of hundred bucks.

    I tell them that once they are in practice, law books will be artifacts on a shelf.

    1. Interesting perspective, Pat. Law is an interesting field because you often need to find resources and relevant sources quickly. When I worked at the Indiana State Capitol none of the State Supreme Court Justices utilized the print books in the state law library and instead opted to use digital resources on their work computers. But I still feel like a lot of casual reading and even some scholarly reading (depending on subject) will still be done through print resources.

      1. Nick, one under appreciated aspect of e-books is the advantage of text to speech. I get in five extra hours of “reading” during my commute each week.

        1. Fair point! I have a 40 minute commute to work and I sometimes listen to history podcasts to and from work, so I can see how e-books can be beneficial in that regard.

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