Schools in Australia are ditching e-books – should we follow suit and ditch e-learning?
September 12, 2019
By Dr Lieb Liebenberg

It has been interesting to follow the reaction to the decision taken by a private school in Sydney to ditch iPads (and e-books) and move back to print textbooks and laptops. In the public discourse, this single incident has been elevated to the extent that it appears as if the whole of Australia is moving back to print (which is not the case) and getting rid of e-learning altogether. School governing body meetings, principals’ conferences, and teacher training events have since had multiple discussions around ditching e-books

(and e-learning) – all sparked by one (fairly isolated) decision by a specific school in a specific context – based on their specific implementation of iPads and e-books. 


What I find interesting about the way this news was received in local educational circles, is that readers fixated on the school doing away with e-books, while the decision was just as much about moving away from iPads because they were seen as a distraction. Of course, this was regarded as a vindication by those opposed to e-learning, and many “digital” schools have reported an increase in queries by parents as to why they persist with e-learning when “Australia” has dumped e-books. 


What is, unfortunately, omitted from the discussion, is that the principal of the Sydney school explicitly said that they are moving to a BOYD (Bring Your Own Device) environment with a preference for laptops. So instead of moving away from e-learning altogether, it makes sense that the school will continue to use devices to support teaching and learning, but based on their specific implementation of a very particular e-book platform (it is not mentioned which) and experience over the years, will do so in a different manner than before. 


However, what does not make sense is that this particular instance should become normative for all schools across the globe – including South African schools – where the contexts simply differ too much. To make such a call, we should know more about the details of this particular implementation: the support that was provided to students and teachers; the way it was implemented; the software platform(s) that were used to both manage classrooms and student engagement; as well as the e-book application that was used and how much control teachers had of the environment (for instance, if students were allowed continued access to the Internet during class). Only once these factors are known, will one be able to make reasonable deductions as to the applicability of this particular instance to South African schools. 


But what about the difference between reading and comprehension for e-books and print books? Should that not be enough to clinch the argument? Research shows that there are contexts where print works better than e-books – especially when it comes to detailed recall after a once-off reading. However, most students will not (or should not) read through a text only once, because active studying is not about reading and re-reading, which simply leads to a false sense of knowing (where students confuse familiarity with knowledge). When students study for mastery, they should use a variety of brain-friendly tools and techniques such as mind-maps, summaries, flashcards, self-assessments, spacing, interleaving, retrieval practice, etc. In that context, the difference between the reading of a text in print or digital format becomes moot – because it is not about the once-off reading (or even repeated re-reading) of a text, but about active studying and learning practices. It’s proven that the use of different modalities in content delivery and teaching assists with attention, comprehension and memory recall, but few of these can be facilitated by a print book. On the other hand, a thoughtfully constructed e-book, or a deeply integrated e-learning solution that combines e-books or even print books with appropriate multimedia content (blended learning) can provide vastly superior content delivery experiences – ensuring interest and attention when a print book on its own may not be enough. Of course, this does not guarantee better learning – students still have to do all the hard work that was mentioned above. However, simply deciding to ditch e-books or devices in favour of print books will also not lead to better mastery. 


There are instances where print books are more effective than e-books, and similarly, there are instances where the additional features of e-books provide a richer learning experience covering more modalities. It is in these contexts that well-designed e-learning platforms (including those that can integrate textbooks in various formats) can provide significant benefits to aid teaching and learning, including improved visibility of students’ learning activities, in addition to ensuring that schools do not become completely isolated from the digital world. 


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