It’s been quite the week for e-education news: On Monday, US publisher McGraw-Hill launched its first all-digital, cloud-based textbook for primary and secondary school students while UK publisher Pearson announced a cloud-based digital programme for mathematics and reading at the primary and lower secondary levels; on Tuesday the OECD published the results of the first-ever international survey of digital literacy among 15-year-olds; and later in the week, a non-profit education organisation in the United States reported the results of a poll showing that some 40% of US middle- and high-school students think that online learning has become an essential part of schooling.
Up until now, most e-textbooks at all levels of education were simply PDF versions of print books. Not only was there was little or no added value, in many cases, e-textbooks were less useful to students, as it was difficult to highlight chunks of text or scribble margin notes to help with studying. Not surprisingly, these e-books held little appeal for students. In fact, a recent study by the non-profit arm of the Pearson Foundation shows that 55% of university students prefer print over digital textbooks.
A new generation of e-textbooks offers more than a digital version of the print book. They come with all kinds of extras, including presentations, assessments and animation clips, making the learning experience more interactive, engaging and user-friendly. And they’re accessible from any device with a browser.
While these developments in education publishing could go a long way towards improving students' digital literacy, there is a risk that they could deepen the so-called "digital divide" if access to essential hardware isn’t assured. Among many other findings, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey noted that the computer-to-student ratio in schools rose, on average, over the past decade in countries that participated in the survey. But that's not saying that everyone has access to a computer at school. And that divide is not only between those students who do and don't have access to a computer or hand-held device, but also between those who can easily navigate through the digital environment – because they have had more opportunities to explore that environment – and those who can't. Educators must take care that they are providing equal opportunities to all students to use and benefit from these new learning platforms.