Tablets vs. Textbooks
Pros and Cons
Video exploring critical thinking and how it leads to great citizen involvement
Last updated on: 5/24/2013 11:25:55 AM PST

Should tablets replace textbooks in K-12 schools?


PRO (yes) CON (no)
Julius Genachowski, JD, former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in his Feb. 1, 2012 statement at "Digital Learning Day Town Hall" at the Newseum in Washington, DC, available at hraunfoss.fcc.gov:
"Now, it's time for the next stage – or chapter if you will – in education technology: digital textbooks. Digital textbooks are one of the cornerstones of digital learning. When we talk about transitioning to digital textbooks, we’re not just talking about giving students e-readers so they no longer have to carry around backpacks filled with 50 pounds of often out-of-date textbooks. We’re talking about students having interactive learning devices that can offer lessons personalized to their learning style and level, and enable real-time feedback to parents, teachers, or tutors. Imagine a student who has trouble doing his geometry homework; the digital textbook automatically inserts a supplemental lesson...

We’ve seen digital textbooks adopted in pockets around the country, but adoption is not widespread and too skewed to wealthier areas. Meanwhile, too many students still have textbooks that are 7 to 10 years old. And some students are using history books that don’t even cover 9/11. It’s not just the content of textbooks that needs updating it’s the concept. We often talk about how technology has changed everything, but static, hardcover textbooks are what I used in school, what my parents used, what their parents used and so on. We spend $7 billion a year on textbooks in this country, but digital textbooks – this massive innovation – remain the exception, not the rule. We can do better. And I envision a society spending less on textbooks, but getting more out of them. We all win if the players in the digital learning ecosystem – including publishers, device manufacturers, platform providers, internet service providers, schools – work together to accelerate the adoption of digital textbooks."

Feb. 1, 2012 - Julius Genachowski, JD 

Rupert Murdoch, MA, founder, Chairman, and CEO of News Corporation, said in a May 24, 2011 speech to a meeting of government leaders and internet industry professionals at the eG8 forum in Paris titled "Education: The Last Frontier" (transcript available at newscorp.com):
"Everywhere we turn, digital advances are making workers more productive - creating jobs that did not exist only a few years ago, and liberating us from the old tyrannies of time and distance. This is true in every area except one: education... Our schools remain the last holdout from the digital revolution. The person who woke up from a fifty-year nap would find that today's classroom looks almost exactly the same as it did in the Victorian age: a teacher standing in front of a roomful of kids with only a textbook, a blackboard, and a piece of chalk. My friends, what we have here is a colossal failure of imagination... The same digital technologies that transformed every other aspect of modern life can transform education, provide our businesses with the talent they need to thrive, and give hundreds of millions of young people at the fringes of prosperity the opportunity to make their own mark on this global economy.

...[B]ringing digital innovation to the classroom can substantially improve education for children throughout the world - including many now callously written off as hopeless... The key is not just a computer or a tablet or some other device, but also software that will engage students and help teach them concepts and learn to think for themselves.

...There are many different ways to teach children fractions - all of which work for some kids, and don't work for others. Why should we be limited? Why can't we use digital technology to give teachers the choice of all of them?... I know the critics say that if you introduce technology to the classroom, you are simply replacing teachers with computers and blackboards with screens. But the critics are wrong. Technology will never replace the teacher. What we can do is relieve some of the drudgery of teaching. And we can take advantage of the increasingly sophisticated analytics that will help teachers spend more time on the things that make us all more human and more creative... In our own backyards, we have millions of young people whose minds are the key to our future. It is time to insist that our schools use every technology we can to unlock their potential - and treat them as the precious resource they are."

May 24, 2011 - Rupert Murdoch, MA 

Tom Vander Ark, MBA, CEO/Partner of Getting Smart and former Executive Director of Education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote in his Sep. 11, 2010 article "Post Textbook World" on huffingtonpost.com:
"It's time to put technology in the hands of students--real 24/7/365 learning opportunity. Last year we crossed a threshold where it's cheaper to give kids devices and stop building computer labs and buying textbooks... States and districts will adopt digital textbooks and review online courses... because it is a comfortable step into the digital world... Education is gradually shifting from approving inputs to focusing on student outcomes. And the number and quality of learning opportunities online is exploding... Dominant learning platforms will combine personalized content libraries, social learning features, smart recommendation engines, and aligned services for students, teachers, and schools--sort of Facebook, iTunes Genius, Google apps, and 1-800 support services for students and teachers. It's exciting to look ahead a school year or two, but devices are cheap enough and content is good enough that there's no reason to wait--ditch the textbooks and go online. For teachers, it will unlock new opportunities to meet individual student needs. For students it will extend, engage, and expand learning. And it will beat lugging a backpack of textbooks home."

Sep. 11, 2010 - Tom Vander Ark, MBA 

Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, and Julius Genachowski, JD, former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, wrote in their Feb. 1, 2012 report "Digital Textbook Playbook," available at fcc.gov:
"Educators are challenged to satisfy the learning needs of today’s diversity of students while meeting the increasingly complex definition of what it means to be educated in the 21st Century... The digital textbooks envisioned will come in an ever-evolving variety of technological and instructional variations to meet diverse educational needs and interests. But they will all have in common digital devices with access to rich, interactive, and personalized content that will encompass the primary tool set in digital learning. No longer will students have to tote 50 pound backpacks with outdated print textbooks. New digital textbooks will be light digital devices – such as a laptop or tablet – that combine Internet connectivity, interactive and personalized content, learning videos and games, and other creative applications to enable collaboration with other students while providing instantaneous feedback to the student and teacher. Digital textbooks can revolutionize teaching and are not simply the digital form of static textbooks."

Feb. 1, 2012 - Julius Genachowski, JD 
Arne Duncan 

Alison Anderson, MS, Managing Editor of GettingSmart.com blog and K-8 Technology Teacher at Holy Cross Catholic School in Portland, OR, as quoted in Sarah Cargill's Aug. 18, 2012 article "Should Your School Replace Textbooks with E-Readers?" on blogs.edweek.org:
"I believe a [tablet] that allows for customization of font size, audio options, dictionary support, Internet research, note taking, and organization of notes can help students read and comprehend content at new levels that were not accessible to them previously. They also give instant access to books that previously had to be ordered, delivered, etc. There is a movement towards digital, up-to-date textbooks, so students can always read relevant information instead of outdated, recycled texts."

Aug. 18, 2012 - Alison Anderson, MS 

Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council and 2013 New York City mayoral candidate, said in a Jan. 15, 2013 speech (available at council.nyc.gov):
"Technology has changed what we need to teach, but it’s also changed how we need to teach. Thanks to the internet, teachers in any given subject can share lessons and materials with colleagues around the world. They can organize those lessons into online textbooks, which their students can read on tablets in school and at home. So I’m proposing that we move all our 1,700 schools from a system of textbooks to a system of tablets. And if you think that sounds like it’ll cost a lot of money, listen to this. We currently spend more than a hundred million dollars a year on textbooks. That’s enough money to buy tablets for every student in New York City public schools, and cover staff costs to make sure these online texts are meeting rigorous standards. So a teacher in the Bronx can pull together the most relevant information for his class, and update it throughout the year to stay current. He can incorporate videos and interactive multimedia assignments that better engage kids living in a digital world. By using tablets instead of textbooks, the possibilities really are limitless."

Jan. 15, 2013 - Christine Quinn 

Karen Cator, MA, CEO of Digital Promise and former Director of the Office of Education Technology at the US Department of Education, said in her Mar. 16, 2012 article "The Transition to Digital Content and Textbooks" on ednetinsight.com:
"The term 'digital textbook' does signal an important entrance into mainstream education of the vast array of rapidly improving high-tech content, tools, and resources... When people ask me what a digital textbook is, I say that it is a bridge to a powerful new way to learn, a phenomenon that may be as significant as the invention of the printing press that opened the door to universal learning from books. How will digital learning expand learning opportunities? First, students and teachers can use some of the same powerful tools professionals use for research, writing, music composition, photography, and documentary filmmaking — tools for creating and analyzing visualizations of mass quantities of data and for communication and collaboration.

Second, the content within this new generation of textbooks can be expanded, enhanced, and personalized in a digital environment. Imagine the textbook that can read aloud, define its words, provide explanations of how to solve problems, and take the student on a virtual tour of the setting of a novel. Imagine it includes maps with perpetually updated videos, stories, data, and information—well organized and accessible for the teacher and the learner. Imagine it contains simulations and models, animations of the stock market, or the earth’s tides, a molecule that students can interact with—turning it around, adding or removing parts to promote deeper conceptual understanding. And this textbook includes links to relevant websites, resources, videos, and personal interests both professionally vetted and personally curated.

These digital learning tools will provide guided feedback that is personalized for the learner, readily adapting to the abilities and needs of each student. They will include cognitive tutors adapting to the progression of the student and complex and engaging games that support problem solving and collaboration, encourage persistence, and maintain motivation."

Mar. 16, 2012 - Karen Cator, MA 

Joel Klein, JD, former Chancellor of New York City's Department of Education and current CEO of News Corporation's Amplify educational tablet, said in a Mar. 12, 2013 interview with Fox 5 New York (available at myfoxny.com):
"We must use technology to empower teachers and improve the way students learn. At its best, education technology will change the face of education by helping teachers manage the classroom and personalize instruction... If you have a tablet-based approach, you can get a whole lot smarter a whole lot quicker. Tablets come chock full of things that are all about education so the teachers can personalize the learning experience... A kid can get feedback about what skills she's mastered and what skills she hasn't... Tablets are in classrooms across the country now, and the excitement of the teachers and students is something to behold... I think that tablets are helping the teachers. This is a way for a teacher to prepare her lesson and share it with other teachers to get feedback. I think this is an initiative where we don't need to butt heads and we can all join together, work together, and do what's right for teachers and what's right for kids."

Mar. 12, 2013 - Joel Klein, JD 

Jose Ferreira, MBA, CEO of online education platform Knewton, wrote in his Mar. 29, 2012 article "Digital Textbooks: US Government Ready for Next Chapter" on knewton.com:
"Many people think a digital textbook means reading a huge PDF on their computer. But in reality, a new crop of digital textbooks is emerging that’s vastly more sophisticated than a mere collection of one-size-fits-all online content... When it is mature, online education will increase global access to education every bit as much as it took the printing press hundreds of years to do. But it will also do something the printing press, for all its revolutionary importance, did not do. Online education has the chance to vastly improve the content it distributes via extreme personalization.

The ongoing transition to digital textbooks won’t be easy. There are a number of barriers to adoption, some — like lack of access to broadband and digital devices — notably pervasive. But it’s certainly worth the effort. The FCC and Department of Education are doing an admirable job of spearheading this plan, both by bringing together stakeholders from across the digital ecosystem... as well as overseeing initiatives like the Digital Textbook Playbook, a roadmap to help teachers, administrators, and others tackle some of the particularly pervasive barriers to adoption... [W]e applaud the... strong leadership toward a next generation US education system that again leads the world both in terms of access and quality."

Mar. 29, 2012 - Jose Ferreira, MBA 

Bob Lenz, MA, CEO and Co-Founder of Envision Education, said in his June 9, 2010 article "Will the iPad and Similar Technology Revolutionize Learning?" on edutopia.org:
"I think this technology [tablets] will revolutionize the way a student will access all types of information: media, academic research, and books (non-fiction, fiction, and textbooks). In addition, students can produce digital work, blog, chat, and email with peers and teachers -- all for a relatively low cost… Look for many new applications to be built for tablets that will serve as a course of study or a unit of instruction. Someday, teachers might just create apps for their students instead of handing out papers, or posting assignments on the Internet. I also wonder if this technology will allow access for students across the world that do not have access to schools or teachers."

June 9, 2010 - Bob Lenz, MA 

Justin Hollander, PhD, Assistant Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, wrote in his Oct. 9, 2012 op-ed "Long Live Paper" in the New York Times:
"Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared a war on paper textbooks. 'Over the next few years,' he said in a speech at the National Press Club, 'textbooks should be obsolete.' In their place would come a variety of digital-learning technologies, like e-readers and multimedia Web sites... Secretary Duncan is threatening to light a bonfire to a tried-and-true technology — good old paper — that has been the foundation for one of the great educational systems on the planet. And while e-readers and multimedia may seem appealing, the idea of replacing an effective learning platform with a widely hyped but still unproven one is extremely dangerous.

...[D]igital-reading advocates claim that lightweight e-books benefit students’ backs and save schools money. But the rolling backpack seems to have solved the weight problem, and the astounding costs to outfit every student with an e-reader, provide technical support and pay for regular software updates promise to make the e-textbook a very pricey option.

...With strength and durability that could last thousands of years, paper can preserve information without the troubles we find when our most cherished knowledge is stuck on an unreadable floppy disk or lost deep in the 'cloud.' Paper textbooks can be stored and easily referenced on a shelf. Data are as easy to retrieve from paper as reaching across your desk for a textbook. They are easy to read and don’t require a battery or plug. Though the iPad and e-readers have increasingly better screen clarity, the idea that every time a person reads a book, newspaper or magazine in the near future they will require an energy source is frightening.

The digitization of information offers important benefits, including instant transmission, easy searchability and broad distribution. But before we shred the last of the paper textbooks, let us pause and remember those old streetcars, and how great it would be if we still had them around."

Oct. 9, 2012 - Justin Hollander, PhD 

Michael Bloomberg, MBA, Mayor of New York City, said in a Mar. 1, 2013 radio show on WOR 710 New York (transcribed at dnainfo.com):
"The thing that worries me about tablets instead of textbooks is we think if you give a kid a computer, you solve the problem... When you have computers there, then there’s the pornography and the social media and the distraction of games and that sort of thing... I get in trouble every time I say this, but I would do anything to have better quality teachers, even if it meant bigger class size, even if it meant them standing rather than sitting... That’s in the end what really makes a difference. That human being who looks the student in the eye."

Mar. 1, 2013 - Michael Bloomberg, MBA 

Lee Wilson, MBA, Principal Consultant at Headway Strategies, wrote in his Feb. 23, 2012 article "Apple's iPad Textbooks Cost 5x More Than Print" on educationbusinessblog.com:
"Textbooks are a known entity, schools and publishers have developed pretty efficient mechanisms to getting teachers oriented to a new textbook. The iText [Apple's brand of digital textbook] adds a need to train teachers on how to incorporate the devices into their classroom practice. On an annual basis once a teacher has incorporated a textbook into their lesson plans there is very little fine tuning until the book changes. With a digital text the content should update every year requiring tweaks and updates to the teacher's plans. Current content is a huge advantage for the digital text and one of the prime reasons to consider moving in this direction. But from a budget standpoint it comes with a real cost that can't be ignored...

At every level except management the iPad texts are more expensive. The single biggest contributor to the imbalance is the iPad itself, followed by the network... We are likely to hear lots of bleating about engagement and how much the kids love to work with these devices. To which educators should respond with 'great - where is the objective data on improved outcomes?' As a long term advocate of ed-tech I hope the data supports the thesis, but until we see the proof, claims along these lines ought to be regarded as aspirational marketing...

The next time some ignorant bloviator refers to 'outrageously priced textbooks' remind them that at six cents per day a textbook is about as efficient as you are going to get for high quality, well designed, instructionally sound, standards aligned, and globally permissioned materials."

Feb. 23, 2012 - Lee Wilson, MBA 

Esther Wojcicki, MA, Teacher at Palo Alto High School and Vice Chair of the Creative Commons board of directors, wrote in her Summer 2010 article "E-Textbooks to iPads: Do Teenagers Use Them?" on nieman.harvard.edu:
"Students hold strong and passionate opinions about e-textbooks... While a majority dislikes e-textbooks, about 20 percent believe that they are the future - and should be. Perhaps I should have predicted such a reaction given that early in the school year many of these students had written a fiery editorial about e-textbooks in their social studies classes. In part it read, '… online textbooks hinder study habits and force the use of computers. … and are detrimental to learning and inconvenient.' The editorial concluded with these words: 'If the school wishes to cultivate the use of e-books, it should at the very least offer students the option to continue using the old, hardcover books.' At one point, we did a straw poll with the option of a free Kindle with all their books loaded on it or their old textbooks. The result: 100 percent voted for their heavy, old textbooks...

Students were adamant that it was 'much easier to learn' from a textbook. (Several students did say that they don’t like carrying heavy books.) With hardcover books, they told me, they can highlight sections and flip through and scan pages more easily; reviewing the highlighted pages helps them remember facts. Portability also was an important factor: With a textbook they could study in random places like at after-school games or practices or they could take it with them to a friend’s house, and no one would ever want to steal it, unlike a Kindle. They said that digital devices in general were hard on the eyes, hard to read outdoors, required dealing with a battery, and are fragile... [S]tudents really find it easier to learn from a textbook..."

Summer 2010 - Esther Wojcicki, MA 

Tommy Toy, MBA, Management Consultant and Business Strategist at PBT Consulting, wrote in his Aug. 22, 2012 article "Teaching with Tablets: Adoption of Tablets by K-12 and College Students, and Their Long Term Effects" on tommytoy.typepad.com:
"...[N]ot all socio-economic households and schools can afford a tablet, mobile apps, and access to WiFi for their school-aged children. For this reason, I am afraid that many families and classrooms will be left behind as tablet technology becomes mainstream. Only higher income households and schools scoring high on standardized tests will be able to afford these new technologies.

My other concerns are privacy issues and proper supervision of students as they gain access to the Internet. Teacher and parental supervision are paramount for all age groups to insure that they are not being exposed to improper online content. Teachers and parents must make sure that tablets are being used responsibly by their children and students, and that these devices are being used for educational activities, not just for playing games and online entertainment. We won't know the affect tablets and computers will have on the quality of education. Goals must be established and educators must make sure that tablets and other mobile teaching devices are producing higher test scores and grades."

Aug. 22, 2012 - Tommy Toy, MBA 

Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a June 25, 2012 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education and available on the Chronicle of Higher Education website:
"Just giving people devices has a really terrible track record. You really have to change the curriculum and the teacher and those things. And it's never going to work on a device where you don't have keyboard-type input. Students aren't there just to read things. They're actually supposed to be able to write and communicate... The device is not the key limiting factor at this point... I don't see that as the key thing right now."

June 25, 2012 - Bill Gates 

[Editor's Note: On Apr. 15, 2013, we emailed the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), American Association of School Administrators (AASA), American Association of School Personnel Administrators (AASPA), American Educational Research Association (AERA), Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), Education Commission of the States (ECS), International Reading Association, Achieve Inc., National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), and National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) for their pro, con, or not clearly pro or con response to our question "Should tablets replace textbooks in K-12 schools?"

As of May 24, 2013, the NASBE , NAESP, and Achieve Inc. had responded but did not have position statements on our core question to share. The others have yet to reply.]


Visit the ProCon.org community on:

© 2014 ProCon.org, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit     |   233 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 200, Santa Monica, CA 90401    |    Tel: 310-451-9596