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'Critical Thinking' Nonprofit Takes on the E-Textbooks Debate

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Reporters and commentators here at Education Week have been following the rise of digital textbooks and responses from K-12 publishers and educators for some time. Now ProCon.org, a nonprofit organization devoted to gathering reliable information to support both sides of controversial issues, gets in the game with Tablets vs. Textbooks, a newly launched "issue site" that aims to promote "critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship" by laying out reasoning for and against widespread tablet use in schools in a "straightforward, nonpartisan, primarily pro-con format."

The new site consists of five sections: "Did You Know?," "Pro & Con Arguments," "Background," "Video Gallery," and "Footnotes & Sources." Statistics and projections cited in the "Background" section point to a number of reasons why tablets may be the timely choice for schools and districts shopping for instructional material: tablet and e-reader markets are booming, already dwarfing a K-12 publishing market dominated by McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Usage statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life research project—whose work has appeared several times on BookMarks—are also included in this section to show that tablets are quite popular in everyday use.

The arguments ProCon.org lists against district- or school-wide tablet plans emphasize the slow-moving nature of K-12 publishing, among several other factors. Implementing a district-wide tablet strategy comes with a serious hurdle: high initial expense. Furthermore, the site states, the manufacture of tablets can incur enormous damages to both environments and human health. Ongoing technology access issues—like limited broadband in low-income and rural communities—further the argument against mandatory tablet use in schools.

Interestingly, one of the negatives the site associates with reliance on tablets is the prohibitive cost of negotiating e-textbook licensing with publishers. Another con is the limited selection of e-textbooks, as publishers continue to experiment with different digital strategies while ramping up prices for print products and releasing only some parts of their catalogs to digital. The resistance of traditional content providers to an e-textbook shift bubbles beneath the surface of the con argument, while the benefits of each format for teachers—flexibility to select from a variety of educational resources vs. the stability and authority of a predetermined curricular framework—go almost entirely unmentioned. One exception given on the issue site is the suggestion that switching to tablet learning would devalue and undermine teacher expertise, particularly in areas like literacy and critical thinking.

An extensive "Footnotes & Sources" section provides authors, article titles, dates, and shortened URLs for each source. ProCon.org is an online fact sheet, not a library or a research database, but I must admit to some disappointment that original material, where accessible, is not directly linked to from the source list. Furthermore, some of the data and talking points pulled into the discussion seem somewhat beside the point. Noting the breakdown of smartphone and Twitter users by ethnicity, for example, is interesting information and may speak to the existing online presence and digital literacy of certain populations, but does not necessarily relate to the benefits of tablets or print textbooks for teaching and learning.

The site offers a video gallery as well: four short (one- to six-minute) clips of the pros and cons in action, culled from various media outlets. The Associated Press, Bloomberg India, a local Fox News affiliate, and someone named LockerGnome are represented.

Tablets vs. Textbooks highlights some of its more attention-grabbing statistics up front in a section called "Did You Know?". A two-column table of pro-tablet and anti-tablet arguments follows, though arguments from the two sides do not appear to speak to or answer each other. This, then, is one of the downsides of ProCon.org, a project that's more Point/Counterpoint than dialogue: the organization's goal is to arm both sides of any given argument with information, not necessarily to facilitate reconciliation or communication between viewpoints.

I'm curious: Who in our readership considers tablets to be the antithesis of textbooks? I've yet to make up my mind on this very basic point, but hope to hear all sides of the argument.

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