While digital textbooks are increasingly making their way into classrooms, they require a new approach to teaching and learning—for both instructors and students. After all, if you simply assign readings from a digital textbook as you would from a physical textbook, it defeats the purpose of moving to digital.
And it’s not just about cutting costs. Thanks to our ability to carry around a powerful computer in a pocket or a purse, digital textbooks make a lot of sense, especially since—if used correctly—they can engage students with immersive learning experiences (and provide you with a wealth of new teaching materials).
While you may be tied to a curriculum, digital textbooks allow you to experiment with teaching methods that can improve student retention and performance—and make class a lot more fun. But they do come with a learning curve. And they can be intimidating, especially if you’re not comfortable with technology.
“Finding the time needed to reach the expert level of any new discipline can be difficult for educators, particularly those at an early juncture in their careers who face significant demands on their time,” writes Laura Freberg, a professor of psychology at California Polytechnic State University, in an article for Inside Higher Ed.
“Between their own research and university service requirements, young professors are often pulled in several directions at once,” she says, “leaving little time to master and implement classroom tech.” Thankfully, she adds, it’s easier than ever to incorporate innovative technologies into the classroom environment—all while easing the administrative burden of instruction.
To truly benefit from a digital environment, there’s no point treating a digital textbook like a print version of that textbook, and “instead consider the digital advantages that can be embedded,” according to an article in Educause Review. Digital textbooks should “employ components that are only available digitally,” such as multimedia and real-time collaboration. After all, if an assignment is boring on paper, it’s still going to be boring on a mobile device.
Here are a few ways to start incorporating digital textbooks into your classroom, without overwhelming yourself in the process:
Customization: While you have a curriculum to follow, digital textbooks allow for a degree of customization. Rather than teaching a one-size-fits-all curriculum, you can offer additional content and apps that can enhance student learning—particularly for those struggling to understand a new concept. There are literally thousands of open educational resources available online; you can even create your own content with authoring tools.
Bring learning to life: Digital textbooks can take complex concepts out of a book and bring them to life on a screen. Whether learning about the geography of ancient Mesopotamia or how the human nervous system works, audio-visual tools can do what no traditional textbook can: take the student into an environment not otherwise physically possible. As technology advances, we’re likely to see more augmented and virtual reality capabilities that will immerse students in completely new ways.
Gamification: Playing educational games can help students understand complex (or tedious) concepts, such as mathematical or scientific formulas. Plus, they’re motivating; students are more likely to tackle complex subject matter when it’s presented as a game, particularly if they’re rewarded for completing various tasks. Rewards could come in the form of points or badges, unlocking extra content or even earning extra credit—and students might actually want to do their homework if it’s presented as a game.
Quizzes: A digital classroom allows you to create online quizzes in minutes. With auto-grade capabilities, you can see the results almost instantly, helping to assess students’ comprehension of the subject matter (and where they may need additional review). But you don’t always have to grade quizzes; they’re also an effective form of active learning that helps students retain new knowledge.
Blended Learning: Digital textbooks provide a foundation for blended learning. Students can review curated content, educational games or video tutorials (you can even make your own) at home, so class time is used for interactive discussions and activities such as group work. Or, you can quiz students, assess their understanding and decide if you need to review the material or move on.
While digital textbooks have a lot of benefits, they do require a new approach in the classroom. And that starts with a plan.
“As we transition from traditional teaching and learning approaches to digital and interactive ones, we need to carefully plan and prepare the learning environment,” says educational consultant Anita Townsend in an article for Teach Magazine. “Having a management plan is essential when using digital learning tools. This plan should cover components such as classroom organization, instructional strategies, technology availability and time.”
Digital textbooks aren’t just a cheaper alternative to physical textbooks. The flexibility of an immersive digital environment allows students—and their instructors—to interact with content in ways never before possible.