Online textbooks don’t aid student education

Credit: Rachel Cohen/Pillbox Editor Credit: Rachel Cohen/Pillbox Editor
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Last year, when I attended high school at Phillips Academy outside of Boston, the math and economics department made moves toward using online textbooks and online homework assignments. This trend of going online — with the suggestion that online learning is superior to traditional learning — seems to have continued into college.

To be blunt, online textbooks are counterproductive, inconvenient trash. What’s even worse? Online homework. Scrap convenience. Scrap accessibility. Online reading and homework just isn’t working well for me, and I’m sure it isn’t working for many other college students out there. Online homework does not improve the academic experience or performance, and a reversion to traditional pen and paper would probably help students learn better.

There are, of course, some advantages that come along with online textbooks. They save paper. There’s no denying the good that saving paper does. Online learning also allows all textbooks to be centralized in one Internet browser. Third, they come with interactive features. Students can take notes on their computers, all of which can be saved and accessed digitally. Students can quiz themselves and watch videos about concepts they have trouble comprehending. If students are susceptible to losing homework assignments, like myself, online hubs allow students to keep them in one, easy place. Lastly, online learning should, in theory, be a lot cheaper. Textbook companies are supporting a server, not printing thousands of textbooks.

It all sounds wonderful. Right? My professors seem to think so. Out of the four textbook-based classes I am taking this semester, three use some form of online textbook or homework assignments. Many introductory math classes require WebAssign. Principles of Economics requires Aplia.

Colleges seem to think online textbooks are wonderful too: Digital textbooks may make up more than 11 percent of textbook revenue in the United States this year, according to senior analyst Kathy Micky of Simba Information in The New York Times.

This should all be good news. For subjects like chemistry, mathematics, and economics, however, online homework is frustrating. There is practically no room to take notes in the margins of readings. Need an answer? There’s no option to keep your finger on the answer page to check if you’re right after finishing problems. All of that is now within the depths of a computer screen. The formula is 20 clicks away, and answers are almost impossible to retrieve without opening a second tab — probably another 20 clicks.

WebAssign is a classic example of how counterproductive online learning can be. For multiple-choice questions, it’s easy to click random buttons and achieve perfect scores. While this random clicking is a marginal blessing for QPAs and stress levels, students do not actually learn — they guess.

The fact that WebAssign and Aplia spit out ticks and crosses for correctness encourages students to become complacent. The answers don’t come back with a teacher or professor’s feedback. The website won’t explain what’s wrong, where students made mistakes, or how they can improve. Yes, there are office hours, but professors see students’ progress through a computer screen of scores, and not by the way they solve problems.

In the 21st century, where iPads can access thousands of books through several touches, online homework seems to be the next logical step, and maybe it is. But online learning needs to be reformatted so that it preserves all the advantages of paper, along with the advantages that the Internet and multimedia bring. The same needs to be applied to online textbooks to make their use more fluid.

I would rather break my back lugging around textbooks than paying nearly the same amount for access to a website that won’t give me the same quality education.