Choosing between Only Digital or Paper Textbooks Is Wrong Approach

Many teachers and parents and guardians of students are concerned about the digitization of textbooks. It is hard to understand why the government has been so hasty in reaching a conclusion on this issue.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has decided to abolish the standard that restricts the use of digital textbooks, and the ministry’s panel of experts mulling the introduction of digital textbooks has approved the decision. Current rules state that digital textbooks can only be used in fewer than half of class periods, but unlimited use will reportedly be allowed as early as the 2021 school year.

Using digital textbooks in conjunction with paper textbooks has been allowed since the 2019 school year. The standard of half of class periods was established in consideration of children’s health.

In abolishing the standard, the education ministry has proposed measures such as giving students’ eyes a regular break. But is that really OK? It is impossible not to get the impression that the ministry has abruptly changed its policy without sufficient verification.

In past expert panel meetings, elementary and junior high school principals’ associations have called for the use of digital textbooks in conjunction with paper textbooks, and expressed concern about the abolition of the standard.

It is said that teachers are not familiar with how to handle digital textbooks, and parents and guardians are also concerned about problems caused by negative influences such as internet addiction. Despite lingering concerns among those on the front line at schools, the ministry made its decision too hastily. It should carefully consider how to use digital textbooks for each grade and subject, depending on the development of each child.

Currently, less than 10% of public elementary, junior high and high schools use digital textbooks. At the end of 2019, the ministry came up with a plan to distribute electronic devices to all elementary and junior high school students. The move was said to be part of an economic stimulus package following the consumption tax rate hike.

The plan was to distribute the devices by the 2023 school year, but it was implemented ahead of schedule in the 2020 school year due to the coronavirus crisis. Partly due to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s pledge to promote digitization, the ministry has all at once shifted to the active use of digital textbooks. However, it is wrong to make an either-or choice between paper and digital in the education field, which influences the future of children.

It is important to take advantage of the characteristics of both paper and digital textbooks. Currently, the content of digital and paper textbooks is the same, but video and audio materials will be available in digital versions in the future. It is necessary to make efforts to generate a synergistic effect with paper textbooks as a basic teaching material and digital textbooks as a complementary tool to enhance learning effectiveness.

In the first place, it is not clear why textbooks are being digitized. Won’t the basics of education — reading books, writing sentences and developing the ability to think — be neglected? Sufficient discussion is essential.

There are many problems to be solved, such as who will bear the huge cost of updating devices and whether a sufficient communication environment can be secured. In other countries, some schools have reportedly switched from digital to paper textbooks in response to questions about the effectiveness of learning.

What matters is not choosing between paper or digital textbooks, but what to teach with them. In the rush to digitize, the ministry should not forget what is essential.