Digital textbooks have to be more than the electronic soft copies of printed textbooks, not merely to lighten schoolbags or save trees from being chopped down. -NSTP/SYARAFIQ ABD SAMAD

Bill and Melinda Gates, in their Annual Letter 2019 published on Feb 12 in www.gatesnotes.com, highlighted nine things that have surprised them as something “we didn’t see this coming”.

The list, labelled Surprise #1 to Surprise #9, made up of discoveries of what can be worrying and also inspiring, with all leaning towards prodding to action.

Surprise #2 is at-home DNA tests that can lead to not only finding serial killers but could also prevent premature birth. Surprise #5 says that one can learn a lot about processing one’s anger from teenage boys.

A prediction that is not exactly new is Surprise #8; the Gates claimed that textbooks are becoming obsolete as software is finally changing how students learn.

Twenty years ago, many predicted that e-textbooks would replace those heavy forest-killing print textbooks. E-textbooks were supposed to be the wave of the future when they were first introduced. In fact, in Malaysia, their presence in the classroom was as early as 10 years ago.

In 2009, free e-books in the form of laptops were distributed to nearly 25,000 Year Five and Six pupils in Terengganu. The e-textbooks, costing RM15 million, were distributed to 127 primary schools covering subjects, such as English, Bahasa Malaysia, Mathematics, Science and also Islamic studies. However, the initiative failed to take off.

A survey in 2012 discovered that e-textbooks were not fully utilised in the classrooms although a majority of the pupils liked using them. Instead, pupils said they used the laptops mostly to surf the Internet and to listen to music. The survey also suggested that the teachers were not ready. The schools went back to using print reading materials after a few years.

We might think that decades into the digital revolution, the concept of digital textbooks has made headway. Before the school year began this year, the Education Ministry announced that physical textbooks would be replaced with digital ones for lower secondary students. However, these textbooks, which can be downloaded via KPM e-textbook Reader, are in PDF format with a layout similar to the print versions.

Certainly, we can learn from the Terengganu experience that digital textbooks are not only about placing content in a trending medium or platform. The potential transformative powers of e-textbooks depend on the actions both teachers and students take.

Some believe that the question is no longer “if” or “will” the digital device make its presence felt in the classroom. The attention should be more on what do we know about the digital device, and how can we make this equal to print, if not better.

For instance, there are numerous studies that show reading on screen requires a different set of skills than reading on paper. A reader may not be able to comprehend what he views digitally compared with when he reads it on paper. It is said that most people read more quickly on screen than in print and therefore lose comprehension. If you are reading something lengthy, comprehension will likely take a hit if you are using a digital device.

Would today’s students who see themselves as digital natives learn better from a printed book, free from online distractions? Do reading and note-taking from print textbooks with pages one could dog-ear, stick colourful post-it notes or write notes in colourful ink from pens offer measurable advantages for learning?

Reading digitally is already part of 21st century and if reading a computer screen requires different skills, teachers and students must understand how to employ a digital reading device.

Digital textbooks have to be more than the electronic soft copies of printed textbooks, not merely to lighten schoolbags or save trees. They should never end up becoming photocopied supplementary notes. They must offer an immersive experience not possible in print textbooks. They should present information in rich and interactive formats, like videos, animations and hyperlinks that allow students to delve deeper into the subjects.

In their article, Bill Gates also emphasised that the digital transformation of the textbook is not just reading a chapter, for example, on solving algebra. With the digital curricula, learning means students “can look at the text online, watch super-engaging video that shows you how it’s done, and play a game that reinforces the concepts. Then you solve a few problems online, and the software creates new quiz questions to zero in on the ideas you’re not quite getting”.

He also said it does not mean that the digital approach can replace teachers but rather complement them. Teachers then spend more time in the classroom on areas based on the “rich report” showing where students need more help.

The Education Ministry said that a more interactive form of e-textbooks would be prepared for secondary school students by 2022. We have seen more investment in classroom technologies but we have yet to find the right transition to deal with digital textbooks and the digital equivalent of interacting with the text.

For the time being, it looks like we need more time to develop our e-textbooks, to make sure they function as they should — to transform learning and redefine the school experience.

The writer, who left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the conventional classroom, is NST Education editor