Monday, December 14, 2015

The Merits of Digital Textbooks

The advent and increasing ubiquity of digital text books has revolutionized the reading process for students. Learners with print disabilities have especially benefited from the inclusion of accessibility features, such as larger text and text-to-speech. In addition, due to the digital nature of e-textbooks, the reading habits of readers can be monitored and stored. The learning analytics gleaned from certain digital textbooks provide academics with a wealth of meaningful data to explore and analyze for trends.

For example, a new study from Iowa State University examined the habits of students using digital textbooks from CourseSmart. Researchers compiled an “engagement index,” based on students’ highlighting and minutes spent reading. Further, they explored the number of days a student spent reading. The study concluded that both the aforementioned factors were strong indicators of academic success. However, when controlling for past academic achievement, the subject matter, course, instructor, and the number of days students read provided a much stronger predictor of performance. 

The researchers postulate that the findings of this study could help professors identify struggling students as they worked through assignments. By exploring the digital textbook metrics, professors are able to evaluate a student’s time on task, as well as their level of active learning engagement as evidenced by the frequency of their highlighting and notations. Professors could potentially use the learning analytics gleaned from digital readings as a formative assessment measure to check in on how students are faring with the academic material. However, it should be noted that in this study, while highlighting was related to final course grades, it was not statistically significant correlation. 

An article on digital textbooks and the Iowa State university study wouldn’t be complete without a note about CourseSmart, a publisher of eTextbooks and digital resources. Textbooks and resources created by CourseSmart include features that promote active reading and higher engagement. Students are able to take notes and highlight text within the digital text, as well as copy and paste to an external document for easy report writing. Students are able to use the multiple viewing functions or search the text for key words or ideas to help them better analyze and comprehend the text. CourseSmart e-textbooks can be read both online and offline, on a full range of device from laptops to phones to tablets. Further, several assistive technologies have been embedded into CourseSmart resources to meet the needs of vision and hearing impaired users. 

Missing from this study is an exploration of the privacy issues raised by this kind of analysis. The researchers note that they obtained online consent from the students whose reading patterns they examined to have their studying included and analyzed in the research project. However, as the researchers note, "The advent of digital textbooks ... affords educators the opportunity to unobtrusively collect learning analytics data from student use of reading materials." They go on to note that, "The CourseSmart analytics platform was developed to address [specific] steps of the learning analytics process. First, the analytics platform captures data on interactions with the digital textbook in real-time. Second, the platform translates the raw data into a calculated Engagement Index and reports this information to faculty." We wonder if the students using these digital books are fully aware that their professors have the capacity to see what they read, how often, and whether or not they highlight their work. 

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