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Why E-books Are Banned in My Digital Journalism Class

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Tomorrow I teach my first digital journalism class of the semester, which means it’s time for my favorite mini-lecture of the year: Why I Don’t Allow E-Books In My Classroom.

That’s right: I am a fully digitally-enabled professor, teaching a class in which journalists learn to code, and I require my students to use printed books.

It’s time to go public with my bias toward print.

For the past couple of years, I have devoted a paragraph in my syllabus to book formats. It reads:

Books are available for purchase at the university bookstore. Additional readings are posted on Blackboard. Please print out these readings; you will be expected to bring them to class for discussion on the appropriate day. For issues regarding the Blackboard site, please contact student tech support. Selected books are available on reserve at the library.

 You must bring a print copy of the texts to class. While I understand that e-books are convenient, and I enjoy reading them myself, our class depends on face-to-face interaction. Print is the absolute best interface for what we do in this class. The myriad interruptions and malfunctions of electronic readers tend to interfere with class conversation and distract you from being able to refer quickly to a passage in the text. So: read on whatever you like at home, but bring a book or a printout to class.

I really do believe that print is the ideal interface for a classroom. I used to allow e-readers in class. For a couple of semesters, I patiently endured students announcing their technical difficulties to the entire class: “Wait, I’m out of juice, I have to find a plug.” “What page is that on? My Kindle has different pages, so I can’t find the passage we’re talking about.” “Professor, do you have an iPad charging cord I could use?” After a while, I realized that I was spending an awful lot of class time doing tech support. The 2-minute interruptions were starting to add up. E-readers were a disruptive technology in the classroom—and not in a good way.

I went back to print. I required all the students to buy the same edition of the book. Now, when I say, “Please look at the passage on page 45,” everybody opens the book to page 45 and looks at the passage and we have a conversation without getting bogged down in technical glitches.

I know that today’s students are supposed to be digital natives, but in my experience, most students are only good at using basic end-user technology. It’s possible that students don’t know how to use e-readers in class because they don’t use e-books: According to the 2012 Pew Internet & American Life Library Services Study, only 25 percent of Americans 16-29 read at least one e-book in the past year. By contrast, 100 percent of college students know how to use a book. So, in my classes, we use computers for the things that computers are good for, and we use books for the things that books are good for.

It’s important to remember that e-readers have only been around for a few years, so there are dozens of user interface issues that have not been worked out yet. For example: You can’t easily flip through an e-book. In education, this matters more than you think. Let’s say that you were reading a book for class, and you remember seeing something important in a paragraph that you sort of remember was on a page that also had a picture of a fish. You flip through the book, and you see the page, but it’s not a picture of a fish, it’s a picture of a whale. But you found the passage, and you read it again, and you remember it this time. This is how human memory works: You can have a vague sense of something that looked like something, and you go and find it based on what it looked like. It’s not perfect, but it’s effective. Millions of these not-necessarily-linear information-retrieval experiences add up to an education. In an e-book, I couldn’t flip, and I couldn’t search for the phrase “fish picture,” because the picture wasn’t actually a fish. The educational possibilities are limited by the physical realities of the interface.

By contrast, the user interface for a book has been refined for centuries. What we call a ‘printed book’ today is a codex, a set of uniformly sized pages bound between covers. It was adopted around the 3rd or 4th century. A book’s interface is nearly perfect. It is portable, it never runs out of power, and you can write notes in it if you forget your notebook. The physical book is seamlessly integrated into the educational experience: It fits on any desk, even those cramped little writing surfaces that flip up from the side of a seat. You can sit around a table with 15 other people, each of whom has a book, and you can all see each other to have a conversation about what is on the page. If a book breaks, you replace it. If you drop a book in the sink, you dry it out. Paper may even be a better platform for the cognitive task of learning, according to a study by Norwegian professor Anne Mangen. “The ease with which you can find out the beginning, end and everything in between and the constant connection to your path, your progress in the text, might be some way of making it less taxing cognitively, so you have more free capacity for comprehension,” Mangen told Scientific American last year.

I believe in using the right tool for the task. Printed books are often the most effective tools for education. Not all types of education, and not all subjects, sure. Just the type of education I do, which is based on people being in a room together and engaging with ideas collectively. I should also say that I like reading novels on my Kindle, and I like the immediacy of being able to download a book without schlepping to the library. I also hear that it’s handy to be able to make notes in e-books, or search for terms, or even search for terms in your own notes.

But when I see initiatives like the Florida initiative to switch over from print to digital textbooks in public schools by 2015, I shudder. I think of all the teachers who are going to have to waste class time on tech troubleshooting and helping students find the right page and hearing about how a student couldn’t do the reading because he dropped his e-reader in the bathroom. I think of how acquiring knowledge is already hard, and how it becomes even harder for students when the knowledge is buried behind layers of unnecessary or poorly designed technological complexity.

E-books are not the best format for the way the American education system works right now, nor do they allow students equal opportunities for education. When the myriad human-computer interface issues get ironed out, and when e-books are logistically better than print books, I’ll be happy to switch over. That day hasn’t arrived yet. Sometimes, innovation means sticking with what works.

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