The Problem with Online Textbooks and Why You’ll Struggle to Read This

You will probably struggle to read this. And here’s why.

According to research done by Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics at the Department of Language and Foreign Studies at American University, only 16% of people read online text word for word. (Ronsenwald, 2015)

That means there is an 84% chance you are skimming this, bouncing from paragraph to paragraph, scanning for something important to jump out at you. You are probably ignoring most of what you read until you find something relevant, something that pops off the page screaming, “HEY, LOOK HERE! I’M IMPORTANT.”

The fact is most people struggle to read and process text online. There are many possible reasons for this. Neuroscientists believe that one of the reasons could be tied to a lack of spatial memory associated with reading something on a screen. When reading print, one can assign a fact or quote to a particular part of a page which is in a particular chapter, which is in a particular part of the book. There is a physical location associated with the information. This gives a person a feel for where they read it which helps the brain retain this particular piece of information. This linkage to spatial memory is not possible with online texts. (Rosenwald, 2015)

Our school district, Fairfax County Public Schools, has been on the forefront of adopting online textbooks. However, two years after “upgrading” our textbooks to virtual copies, the consensus is in. Everyone hates them. Ask any teacher, student, or parent what they think of their brand new state-of-the-art textbook and you will undoubtedly get an overwhelmingly negative response.  I was inundated at my last back-to-school-night by parents pleading with me to get a copy of the old hardback book. One parent even asked where she could buy one. Just the other day, I mentioned to my class in passing that I was going to go to the school board meeting to explain about the problems associated with our online texts, and (unsolicited mind you) my class spontaneously erupted into applause. I’ve rarely seen second semester seniors get worked up about anything. Never in a million years would I think they’d care passionately about their textbook.

And it’s not just students at our high school who have a visceral reaction to online texts. In her study, Baron found that almost 90% of college book sales are print versions. This is despite the fact that most of these “digital natives” were given the option of purchasing an online version of the same text. In one study in which college students were given a free online textbook, 25% of the participants went out and voluntarily purchased a paper version. (Rosenwald, 2015) How bad does a free textbook have to be where a college student will voluntarily give up their beer money to purchase another? I don’t want to know.

The problems with our online books are many. The server our book is held on frequently goes down during critical parts of the school year. At the beginning of this year, after two weeks of going in and out, the publisher finally had to take the book offline for the first month of school to “update their server”. Students learned the first week of school that if they wanted to get out of doing a homework assignment, all they had to say was, “the book didn’t work.” The most frustrating point from a teacher’s perspective is that too frequently the student isn’t making this up.

The functionality of the book is embarrassingly poor. When we were sold the books, the publisher told us that the student would have the ability to highlight and take notes on the pages, something you can’t do with a traditional textbook. However, when they officially rolled out their software, this ability was missing. Imagine someone sitting in a room and taking a photograph of each page and loading the images into one giant document. That’s essentially what they did. There is no interface with the pages (we were told later that the publishers changed their mind, fearing that students would plagiarize the text if they were allowed highlight and copy parts of it).

The publishers told us that unlike an old-fashioned textbook, the new one would always have up-to-date information. While they were telling us this, I clicked on the “Secretary of State” icon in the government textbook and up popped a biography of the “current Secretary of State, Colin Powell”. Colin Powell hadn’t been Secretary of State for 10 years.

However, poor functionality is not why students don’t like the online textbooks. Believe it or not they dislike them because they struggle to learn from them. Let’s go back to the value created by the spatial memory associated with paper versions of text. Almost every class has a linear progression in which the material presented builds off of previous concepts. In a world history class for example, by physically turning to the pages in the book referring to the Roman Empire, students can actually feel that this point in history comes after Ancient Greece but before the Byzantine Empire because the chapter itself comes after Ancient Greece and before the Byzantine Empire. Clicking a hyperlink on the online version doesn’t have the same effect.

Another key reason why students struggle with online text is that they offer way too many distractions. As we will discuss in a later post, adolescents tend to make more impulsive decisions rather than decisions based on logic. (Packard, 2007) If you give a student the choice between doing something mindless that brings them immediate gratification (talking with a friend on social media, scrolling through pictures of their friends’ dinners on Instagram, or playing a game) versus something mentally more rigorous that will benefit them in the long run (reading their textbook), for them, it’s a proverbial no-brainer. They will do the mindless activity a majority of the time.

Putting textbooks online is a lot like conducting an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a bar. You are taking an activity which requires laser like focus (reading), for a group of people drawn to serial interruptions (adolescents), and you are putting this activity in the lion’s den of distraction (their electronic device). Baron’s research showed that 90% of students “multitasked” (a fallacy we will address at a later post) while on electronic based texts. Only 1% of students multitasked while reading a print version. (Rosenwald, 2015)

The online Washington Post article I pulled this statistic from is a demonstration of why this is- “Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print” . The page is littered with advertisements for the things I was looking at on Amazon last night, links to videos of related stories planted in between paragraphs, and a picture of Angela Lansbury next to links to Facebook and Twitter (if Angela Lansbury can’t break your train of thought, I don’t know who can). In order to read this story, one must navigate this minefield of distractions that even the most focused person would struggle to tune-out. For now, our textbooks are free from advertisements and popups, but there is an infinite number of other distractions that are just a click of the mouse away.

The two biggest complaints about the modern state of education in our county is: students have too much homework, and students aren’t getting enough sleep. But studies have shown that when someone attempts to do two things at the same time (multitasking) it takes them twice as long to complete each activity as it would if the person completed each activity separately, focusing on just one at a time. These studies have shown that this is especially true for modern adolescents despite their claim of being a generation of multitaskers (again, more on this later). Now consider the fact that the average adolescent attempts to do 4 or more activities at the same time when using electronic devices. (Flatlow, 2013) Assuming the level of distraction to time complete a task is a linear progression, 2 hours worth of reading and writing would take the average person 8 hours to complete. “My student spent four hours last night doing your homework,” a parent complained with regards to one of my recent homework assignments. When I expressed concern about this 9th grade honors student’s reading level, explaining to them that I had only assigned three critical reading questions based on four pages of reading, the parent confided that their student had spent much of that time on Instagram.

Regarding sleep, studies have shown that the unnatural light generated by electronic screens actually can disrupt one’s sleep cycle. After a long period at staring at a screen, the photoreceptors in the eyes perceive the artificial light as “daylight” and the brain begins the process of suppressing sleep. It does this by restricting the production of the melatonin (the chemical that induces sleep), adjusting the body’s internal clock (it thinks it’s daytime after all). It has been shown that people who use technology at night before bed (the time in which most students are getting around to their homework) consequently have a more difficult time falling asleep, and staying asleep.  (Herkewitz, 2013)

So to recap, students who use online textbooks: have difficulty reading them, difficulty retaining the information in them, take longer to complete the assignments in them, and more than likely will have problems sleeping as a result of using them. So why are school systems starting to push them on their students? When we asked a member of the superintendent’s office why, in the face of all this evidence, does our county still insist on using them, she replied, “because students need to learn how to use technology to better prepare them for the real world.” These programs they are using aren’t complicated Excel spreadsheets and don’t involve html coding. These programs involve them spending hours scrolling through a pdf file and reading it. What “real world technology” is this preparing them for?

The reality is school systems like Fairfax are adopting online textbooks and publishers are pushing them for one simple reason, they’re cheaper. Publishers don’t have to print or distribute them and schools don’t have to replace them when they get lost. As one of the publishers who rejected our manuscript told us, “the marketing for a book bashing technology would be tricky because print media is dying and we would have to publish it online.”

If you’re still reading this, congratulations, you’ve beaten the odds.


  • Flatow, Ira. “The Myth Of Multitasking.” NPR. NPR, 10 May 2013. Web. 06 Mar. 2015.
  • Herkewitz, William. “Are Your Gadgets Making You a Night Owl?” Popular Mechanics. N.p., 1 Aug. 2013. Web. 06 Mar. 2015.
  • Packard, Erika. “That Teenage Feeling.” Monitor on Psychology4th ser. 38 (2007): 20. American Psychological Association. Apr. 2007. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.
  • Rosenwald, Michael S. “Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 22 Feb. 2015. Web. 06 Mar. 2015.