Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

Why are Textbooks Bad for Education?

This post written by Justin Marquis Ph.D. was first published on : Why are Textbooks Bad for Education?

An interesting video in the Edutopia “Big Thinkers” series, featuring my first faculty mentor at Indiana University, Sasha Barab, the leader of the Quest Atlantis project and now the Pinnacle West Presidential Chair in Teacher Education at Arizona State University is interesting not because of who is talking but rather because of what he says. The video presents an interview about “New Media Engagement,” and the ways in which technology and games can motivate students to learn and take ownership, not only of their own learning, but of larger societal issues. What struck me most about the interview, however, was Barab’s assertion that K-12 education’s reliance on print-based texts is doing students a grave disservice.  A closer examination of his assertion reveals that textbooks may, in fact be hindering students’ ability to develop some of the skills necessary to become literate in the 21st century.

Barab’s Argument

Almost as an aside in the interview, Barab presents a rationale for why a reliance on old technologies in schools is doing a disservice to students:

“One of the problems for teachers is that the type of tools that they’re being given to equip kids to participate in these evolving new literacies, are not the kinds of tools that they need or that kids are going to be using outside of schools. So as long as we continue to equip teachers with textbooks as the primary resources for their lessons, and we don’t make available tools – like social networking tools, computers, and software specifically created to help kids engage with new tools, and new kinds of literacy, we’re setting the teachers up for failure. We’re giving them old tools, and then we’re giving them expectations and outcomes that their kids are going to be held accountable to, that don’t engage those kids [in the right ways]. ” (

This idea is so simple that it is often overlooked in the debate about educational reform. While there is a good deal of talk about BYOD (bring your own device) policies for schools, seldom is this argument the primary justification for the concept, and I have yet to come across an instance in which it was presented as the handicap for teachers the way Barab outlines.

The Reality of E-Readers and Tablets

BYOD in general is a bad idea. As a policy it creates a fertile ground for increasing social stratification and the digital divide. A more egalitarian option is for schools to provide devices for all students to ensure that there is an equal learning field and to minimize and manage technological glitches for IT support staff.  More importantly, e-readers and tablet computers in particular provide an excellent resource for students to help develop their ICT fluency, particularly in regards to STEM areas (Michaelson, 2009). A vast majority of these tablets, Apple, Android, or the forthcoming Microsoft Surface, provide a powerful and flexible platform for students to engage in activities ranging from reading interactive texts and surfing the Internet to editing video and designing games.

In short, these devices function as far more than simple devices for reading. Even when reading is the core activity, advances in digital publication such as Apple’s iText provide interactive enhancements of the traditional textbook that make old-style reading of a book seem like deciphering runes on a stone tablet. That does not even take into consideration the myriad other possibilities that these devices open up for teacher and students.

Overcoming the Roadblocks

From the perspective of a seasoned educator and someone concerned with both 21st Century literacy and education reform, I see no viable counter argument to Barab’s assertion that a reliance on outdated technology (textbooks) in our schools is failing to provide students with an opportunity to enhance their ICT literacy on a daily basis. We live in a hyper-connected world that features a technology-based global economy that requires workers to be innovative, tech-savvy, innovators who are adept at leveraging the latest hi-tech tools both to communicate and creatively solve complex problems.  But getting these devices into every U.S. students’ hands won’t be easy.

For starters we need to stop thinking about education as an end result. Learning is a process that can’t be measured by a single standardized measurement. We don’t even really want that in a world where innovation is the last frontier for American economic growth. We need to provide students with the most up-to-date tools possible so that they can become the innovators that we need them to be.

Secondly, we need to stop viewing education as a societal burden and focus on it as the opportunity for long-term, sustained economic viability and growth that it is. Our young people and the schools and teachers who educate them are our greatest natural resource, and we need to fund all of our schools in accordance with this most important national priority. Only by focusing on the big picture, long range view of what education could and should be can we hope to maintain our place of preeminence in the global economy.

This can only happen if we treat our schools, teachers, and learning in general as the important societal cornerstone that they are. One strong message that we can send to our students, teachers, and the world about our commitment to education and its central role in our society is to set aside political differences and focus on funding the one thing that we all should agree on – education. A great way to start would be to provide powerful tablet computers for every student.


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3 Responses »


  1. Why are Textbooks Bad for Education? | Learn and Teach in the 21st century |
  2. Why are Textbooks Bad for Education? | Personal e-Learning Environments |
  3. Technology and Public Education « Brandon's Educational Blog

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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