Textbooks and tech-books – Can there be only one winner?

Having taught Physics, I am aware that the use of textbooks in STEM lessons is the exception rather than the rule. Even before the advent of digital technology in the classroom, Lunzer and Gardner (1979) observed that less than 10% of an average STEM lesson was spent reading. Of this time, over 90% was in bursts of less than 10 seconds, primarily reading from the board, worksheets or posters and NOT from textbooks. Wellington and Osborne (2001) note a similar trend. In 2011, I decided to test this myself, and observed less than 9% of lesson time was spent in reading, with a average of 1 minute 9 seconds reading the textbook per 40 minute Sixth Form lesson, of the lessons in which the textbook was actually used at all. Now, this is clearly not generalisable even to other STEM lessons, let alone to other subjects. But I do seriously question the financial sense of buying textbooks that are virtually unused. I would love to be challenged on this point – I would love to find out that every other STEM teacher in the country integrates literacy more into their lessons. My whole doctoral research is predicated on the conviction that literacy and language is crucial to learning science. However, I do question that traditional textbooks are the way to promote literacy.

Textbooks are cheaper on a singular basis, are not subject to the whims of wifi access and battery and are more likely to survive a few splashes of hydrochloric acid and other classroom hazards. Certainly, textbooks have a longevity, a permanence, a physical presence. There are many contexts in which a paper-based textbook is more appropriate and supports learning more than an electronic resource, as electronic resources currently exist. However, the very permanence of textbooks renders them prone to rapid outdating (especially when the curriculum seems to change every time you turn around) and inflexibility. You can do many more things, learn many more things, with a tablet than you can with a textbook. Educational resource availability is increasing exponentially online, with a quaquaversal array of communities and individuals creating and communicating good practice, resources and insights.

Textbooks vs. Tech-books
Textbooks vs. Tech-books

However, educational research into edtech has an unfortunate lag time in many cases – several recent journal articles I have read define ebooks as any digital text, including pdf versions of paper textbooks (even scanned versions). So, I am distinguishing here the concept of tech-books, which use a digital pedagogy to promote and enhance learning through the educationally relevant integration of electronic resources. Rather than solely textual delivery, tech-books include audio, video and interactive elements, where and as appropriate, to support learning. Currently, there is little research that directly indicates gains in reading comprehension or content learning through ebooks. However, given that this research suffers from an outdated definition of ‘ebook’, it is unsurprising that no difference in reading comprehension between textbooks and ebooks has yet been formally reported. That does not mean that tech-books, with enriched content chosen for learning and not for novelty, do not offer gains unavailable through textbooks, as outlined in the table above. All it means is that we need to keep testing, keep trying, keep learning about the tech and about our teaching.

Edtech is not about pushing digital resources, or about jumping onto a bandwagon dictated by management. It is about trying to improve the learning experiences of teacher and student. But if we don’t learn, we can’t teach. Experiment, explore and evaluate the available tech-books and textbooks and make a decision based on the needs of your students for a specific lesson and context, rather than deciding that every lesson must (or must not) be digitally based. That said, to effectively teach is to effectively learn and that is why I try to constantly learn about new pedagogies, new tools, new contexts for learning; to be a digital experimentalist and explorer rather than a digital evangelist.

The centre of education must always be learning, and that is always what we try to promote, in the most effective ways available to us – textbooks, tech-books, whatever works for your learners, in your classroom, with your level of confidence and training. If there can be only one winner, it must be student learning.

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Lunzer, E., & Gardner, K. (1979). The effective use of reading.

Wellington, J., & Osborne, J. (2001). Language and literacy in science education. McGraw-Hill International.


Distance Learning I

After the epicurean excesses of Christmas dinner, I have returned to my studies. In addition to my PhD, I am studying for an English Literature degree with the Open University. Although distance learning is by no means new, it remains revolutionary in several senses, most especially in terms of individuality, openness and technological advances.


Distance learning, in the form offered by the Open University and indeed by many other providers, gives more breadth and scope for individual interests. As there are none of the timetable clashes that inevitably happen in traditional universities, a distance learning student can tailor their choice of modules to suit their interests and personal and career commitments. You could take a module in Japanese, then look at Philosophy, then Astronomy – in whatever combination the individual student wants. So, education is opened to people who may find it difficult to fit study into their everyday lives, or who want a more broad education.


The Open University, in common with many distance learning institutions, differs from traditional universities in that it does not select or refuse students based on academic qualifications. While academic selection would not worry some of the attendees of the OU, this openness encourages more students to return to study and to use education to improve their career or just satisfy their curiosity. Not every teenager feels able or suited for a university course at 18, whether for financial, academic or personal reasons. Distance learning enables them to return when they feel ready, at a pace suited to them. The mean age of OU students is somewhere in the 30’s, but the youngest graduate was only 16 when he completed his mathematics degree.

The OU fee’s are also generally much lower than traditional university fee’s – my English Lit degree will have cost me approximately £4,000 spread out over the 5-6 years it will take me to complete the course. Not chicken feed, but more manageable than £9000 a year, you will admit. The OU fees also include textbooks, DVD’s, audio-materials and access to forums and tutorials. No worrying about how to afford the £120 book your lecturer decides is vital to the module. There are also the bursaries and loans to help struggling students. So, distance learning really is democratically open both on a financial and academic level.


Since the earliest examples of distance learning in the 1700’s, distance learning has utilised technology to promote learning. First correspondence courses then radio, followed closely by television and finally the internet. The internet offers synchronous learning tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Skype and asynchronous possibilities through VLE’s (Virtual Learning Environments e.g. Moodle, Frog etc.), forums, blogs and so on. This use of technology encourages communication between learners as much as between learner and instructor. Learning is a social pursuit and technology based communication is not only a useful motivational tool, but also fulfills valuable educative goals.

The advent of tablets and sophisticated mobile phones has opened other avenues for distance learning. Apps such as OU Anywhere, Duolingo, Notability, Google Drive and iTunes U have transformed learning. Now you can learn a new Russian phrase, edit an essay or complete a quiz while waiting for a bus, sitting in a dentists waiting room, wherever and however you choose.

My next blog post, inspirationally called Distance Learning II, will look more at apps for learning, particularly iTunes U and the design and evolution of iTunes U courses to support learning in the classroom, at home or wherever life takes you.

Happy New Year!