Will iTextbooks increase student engagement? Not really.

Posted by reyjunco on January 30, 2012 in Commentary |

Over at Wired, Tim Carmody wrote a great piece about Apple’s latest foray into the education market – digital textbooks via the iBooks 2 app. Tim hits the nail on the head in his introduction (emphasis mine):

Engagement is a big word in education. It combines both objective participation and subjective emotion. It’s one of the few psychological terms in education that links students, teachers and content. So it’s not surprising that in promoting the iPad as a tool for education, Apple touted the device’s ability to engage students.

Because they’re so engaging: okay, let’s just drop the bull and say it, because they’re cool

Tim understands what Apple and most reporters don’t know or like to gloss over: That there is nothing engaging about iTextbooks in relation to the important interpersonal engagement that we’re striving for in order to increase student motivation, participation, and academic outcomes (here is a great article reviewing student engagement and related research).

iBooks 2 Textbooks and student engagementThere’s no doubt that iTextbooks are intrapersonally engaging or put another way, interactive. However, just because something is interactive does not mean that it is engaging. Although I’m not endorsing them either, at least Inkling has the “social learning network” feature that allows students and instructors to carry on a conversation about book content. Certainly, a step in the right engagement direction.

Some of my research on Facebook and Twitter illustrates the idea of “engaging” tech vs. actual engagement: using an “engaging” system like Facebook doesn’t predict much of the variance in real-world engagement; however, using it in certain ways does. Learning outcomes come about not because of the particular technology being used, but because of how that technology is used to support sound pedagogy. Certainly, some technologies will be better suited for certain activities than others (for instance, Twitter lends itself better to ongoing synchronous and asynchronous conversations than email).

Educators will often become enamored by new technologies and adopt them with the underlying assumption that technology in and of itself must be good for learning (for a great review, see the Outcomes section of this paper). We see this type of hype with almost every new educational technology tool that is released. Take for example iPad initiatives at a growing number of universities: there’s no data to show that having students adopt iPads leads to better learning outcomes. So why adopt them on such a widespread scale? The only reason that I can tell is because they are cool.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the “cool factor.” Doing traditional educational activities with a shiny new toy can improve student motivation, a phenomenon I liken to Jedi mind tricks (“these are not the boring lectures you are looking for”). Unfortunately, the effect of the cool factor is short-lived when it comes to promoting positive educational outcomes. When all students have iPads (which is presumptuous to assume- I’ll save my rant about how iTextbooks will widen digital inequalities for another time), reading iTextbooks will be just like any other boring non-engaging assignment that students have to complete in isolation. In other words, the coolness wears off and the interactivity becomes a routine part of the process.

Of course we’ll never know how well new technologies work unless we try them. But in addition to trying them, we must integrate them in educationally-purposeful ways and also assess how integrating them in these ways affects student outcomes in comparison to other tools (in the case of iTextbooks, reasonable comparisons would be regular textbooks, other forms of digital books, and interactive websites). Put another way, we can (and should) be excited about the possibility of how new technologies might enhance learning; however, we must be mindful of evaluating what works and more importantly, what doesn’t.

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  • I’m sitting here fist pumping in agreement with your post… and not only because it agrees with my recent blog post “Don’t confuse BYOT and iTextbooks with Student Engagement!” http://turningtechinvisible.blogspot.com/2012/01/dont-confuse-byot-and-itextbooks-with.html

  • Looks like we were both tapped into the zeitgeist. 

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