Identify educational benefits, issues related to using digital textbooks

Much is still unclear regarding the educational benefits that can be gained by digitizing textbooks. Schools are feeling unsure. The benefits and challenges must be determined through future reviews.

An expert panel of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has compiled a report on the use of digital textbooks, suggesting that the 2024 school year should be the starting point for the full-fledged introduction of such textbooks, and that the effects on learning and health, such as eyesight, should be verified.

The panel also argued the importance of combining digital textbooks with printed textbooks in an appropriate manner. At the beginning of its discussions last year, the panel was inclined to actively use digital textbooks, partly because Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had made digitization a pillar of his reforms, but it is commendable that the panel has shifted to a cautious stance through further reviews.

This spring, the ministry solicited opinions on digital textbooks from the public and organizations such as associations of elementary and junior high school teachers. Some pointed out that it was dangerous to proceed with digital textbooks too quickly, unless there is data showing that academic performance improves. Others said that the use of digital textbooks should be phased in, while monitoring their effectiveness for each grade and subject.

The important thing is not to promote digitization as an objective, but to consider what methods are desirable to increase educational effectiveness.

Recently, research findings have been released both in Japan and abroad showing that paper is superior to digital content for memory and understanding. Printed textbooks should be used as the foundation, and digital textbooks should be used in conjunction as supplementary materials, making the most of the advantages of both.

Digital textbooks have the benefit of being able to utilize video, audio and other content. Textbook companies must use these features to develop learning materials that complement printed textbooks.

The report listed five examples of the combined use of printed and digital textbooks, with the first possibility being “replacing all printed textbooks with digital textbooks.” The ministry needs to work hard to send the right message so that it will not be misunderstood as recommending the abolition of printed textbooks.

At schools, the distribution of digital terminals is progressing, but there has also been confusion in which children could not access digital textbooks, causing delays in classes. Many issues need to be addressed, such as the development of the telecommunications environment and training for teachers.

The government must play a leading role in improving the environment by promoting the training of teachers and the assignment of information and communications technology support staff who are responsible for troubleshooting problems with terminals.

There are also financial issues. The report argued the importance of combining the use of printed and digital textbooks, but the Finance Ministry has shown reluctance to bear the cost of both.

In this school year, the education ministry has been conducting on-site research with digital textbooks in elementary and junior high schools across Japan. It is important to carefully address the mountain of issues one by one, rather than just focusing on digitization.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 30, 2021.