Ebooks: telling a positive story

Electronic courseware holds great potential to reach the reluctant learner, says Neil Georgeson from KnowledgePoint

It’s not often that we hear a good news story about young people and their use of computers. For instance, the BBC once reported that almost 70% of primary and secondary schools in the UK now use tablet computers. Yet, it added, research showed there was no clear evidence that these had driven academic improvement, quoting students who took them home and used them to talk to friends on social media. 

This is typical of how technology in schools often appears a mixed blessing. However, a recent project by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) suggests that, for once, the digital option could bring about positive change. 

Over around four months, 800 pupils were encouraged to read ebooks and share their thoughts about them. Over this time, on average boys made 8.4 months’ progress, compared to 7.2 months’ progress by the girls. In particular, the change of attitude in reluctant readers was marked with a 25% increase in boys reading daily. A real turn up for the ebooks, especially as the NLT says that in general nearly twice as many boys as girls say they don’t enjoy reading at all. 

Yet despite the fact that UK comes second only to Japan when it comes to amounts spent on ebooks, so far their use in UK schools is sporadic.  Interestingly, Japan, plans to introduce digital textbooks into schools over the next four years.  I believe UK schools – and other educational establishments – should follow suit. 

First, let’s clear up one common misconception. Ebooks and ecourseware are not the same as elearning. They still involve a teacher or instructor and learning materials take the form of a book with pages that can be turned, albeit on screen. So students can still be given proper guidance and explanations, be encouraged and their progress monitored. Ebooks and ecourseware can be accessed both in the classroom and also after lesson at home on a PC, laptop or smartphone. 

So why do I think that ebooks could prove so valuable? A comment by the Japanese education ministry panel that devised their ebook policy holds the key. It pointed out that digital books can offer videos and sound and will help students with, for example, foreign language studies. They will also make learning more inclusive, serving the needs of those with impaired sight with zoom functions to enlarge text or graphs. 

But, it’s not just foreign language teaching that could be enhanced. Think how useful a how-to video guide or YouTube clip would be to students learning technical or practical skills. Also, because space and colour are available at no extra cost, designers can be extravagant with both. This will help encourage student immersion in the topic and optimise information retention. In addition, it will encourage those who are more visual and spatial in their learning style and sound can be used for those who learn by hearing and listening. Extra space can also be used to include further reading lists and other back-up information.

The latest ebooks and ecourseware platforms enable students to make notes, highlight and bookmark content as they might do in a traditional book. Annotations are synchronised so those made in the classroom are shown when materials are accessed on a different device.

In my view, ebooks have tremendous potential, as yet unexplored in most of those downloaded on Kindles and other devices. Ecourseware for both schools and further education establishments could help transform learning and development, reaching those students that conventional paper books will never inspire.

And this is before taking into account the cost and scalability advantages. Of course there are no distribution, print or delivery costs and numbers can be increased on demand – so no more sharing text books.

But, however significant these cost savings may be – nothing could beat the promise of engaging reluctant learners and, for once, encouraging boys to read.