• Yomiuri Editorial

Many issues must be examined before full adoption of digital textbooks

Many local governments are concerned about using digital textbooks. Some researchers have voiced warnings over their excessive use. The education ministry should not neglect the examination of certain issues as it hurriedly promotes the use of such textbooks.

An expert panel of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has compiled a draft interim report on the use of digital textbooks. The report positions the 2024 academic year as an opportunity for the full-scale introduction of digital textbooks, saying it is necessary to use them in a proactive manner to improve the quality of school education.

Currently, fewer than 10% of both public elementary schools and junior high schools use digital textbooks. The expert panel was set up by the ministry last summer, and members including scholars, school personnel and people involved in the digital industry have discussed how to disseminate digital textbooks.

In keeping with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s policy of digitization, the government apparently wants to achieve tangible results as soon as possible. However, it is hard to deny that the matter has been treated as a foregone conclusion.

In a Yomiuri Shimbun survey conducted on 74 municipalities, 90% said they were concerned about the introduction of digital textbooks. Asked to cite their reasons, some said they were worried about the deterioration of students’ eyesight and the necessity of securing communications, while others said less time would be spent on writing.

If people on the front line of school education have concerns, effective learning cannot be expected. It is essential that teachers and parents are given sufficient explanations about why digitization is necessary and what kind of educational benefits it will bring.

The education ministry plans to allow unlimited use of digital textbooks from the next school year. It also will conduct trials at elementary and junior high schools across the country. However, encouraging schools to use digital textbooks and then verifying the effects seems to be the wrong order.

According to U.S. neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, in a study conducted on more than 170,000 young people in Europe, the level of understanding was better when they read on paper than on digital devices.

Wolf explained that in education, students should be encouraged to think slowly and acquire the ability to empathize and think critically, and therefore learning on paper was preferred in terms of brain development.

Swedish psychiatrist Anders Hansen is also cautious about digitization. Known for his book “Insta-Brain,” Hansen said that learning became less effective in Sweden after it blindly adopted digital textbooks. He warned that digital textbooks should not be deemed better materials just because they are new.

Digitization of administrative systems should be accelerated. However, if a change in school education causes harm, that damage cannot be undone. A change should be adopted only after the effectiveness is verified.

Paper and digital tools both have their own merits. The ministry should consider the option of using digital textbooks as supplementary materials and seek effective ways to use them in accordance with grade levels, subjects and the personality of each student.

It is also important to improve teacher training, including how to teach while using digital devices and how to deal with problems resulting from the change. There are many issues yet to be tackled before full-scale introduction.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 25, 2021.