Is the use of textbooks beneficial or not

Media literacy

Felicitas Macgilchrist

Macgilchrist, Felicitas, Dr., professor for media research with a focus on educational media at the University of Göttingen and head of department at the Georg Eckert Institute - Leibniz Institute for International Textbook Research, Braunschweig.

The article maps the opportunities and challenges of paid, free and open (OER) digital textbooks for political education. The different potentials of digital school books are discussed based on three categories: PDF digital copies, which are more easily accessible and lighter in weight than printed school books, multimedia-interactive born-digital school books that offer new possibilities for individualization and differentiation, and constructive-interactive school books in which pupils can construct knowledge offers themselves and edit content.

PDF for download

In today's networked world, digital media have become an indispensable part of political education in schools. At the same time, the use of school books in political education is (still) widespread (Oberle / Tatje 2017). Digital school books (also called "electronic school books" or "e-school books") offer a way of combining these two media forms - the digital and the school book. In this article, the current developments in digital school books around the world are first outlined, before the opportunities and challenges of this medium are dealt with on the basis of four dimensions of political education.

Digital school books worldwide

Two classifications are helpful in mapping developments around the world: First, whether the digital school books are designed as paid media, free offers or Open Educational Resources (OER, sometimes called OAT (Open Access Textbooks)). The latter are books "which are made available in the public domain or with a free license. The essence of these open materials is that anyone [sic!] Can reproduce, use, modify and distribute them legally and free of charge" (UNESCO 2016). The best known open license is the Creative Commons license(CC license). A second classification, which will be discussed in more detail below, describes the mediality of digital school books (whether PDF, multimedia-interactive or constructive-interactive).

By far the most digital textbooks today are PDFs, digitized versions of printed school books. Most of these can be purchased from educational media publishers in Germany. Some countries have digitized school books for all subjects and made them accessible online free of charge. The education ministries in Syria, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico and Iran (to name just a few countries) offer their school books as PDFs for free download. In Vietnam, a tablet developed for schools (the classbook) or an app for smartphones and tablets with which all digitized school books for all subjects can be downloaded and updated. As OER or OAT, simple PDFs for political education at the university are provided by some library projects, e.g. B. in the California Digital Open Source Library or in the Open SUNY textbooks.

In other countries are multimedia-interactive digital school books more widespread. They are designed and developed as digital products (born-digital) and in addition to text also contain sound and moving images, short film sequences, 3-D graphics, etc. For example, you need a pause in the video clip, how you vary your perspective on a 3-D image or what details you call up in the infographic on the US debt clock. However, the interactivity of the learners does not change the basic structure of the digital textbook.

Such multimedia-interactive offers have been developed for political classes in Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Ivory Coast, among others. Educational media publishers such as Pearson and McGraw Hill develop them for the United States. Multimedia OER textbooks for political education are available in Poland and at Michigan Open Book Project in the USA. In Germany there are fee-based offers for some subjects, e.g. B. for geography Diercke geography (Davanzo et al. 2014) or for history mBook. History for the future (Sochatzy / Ventzke 2016), but not yet for politics. The Schulbuch-O-Mat in Germany has developed an open (OER), multimedia-interactive digital textbook for biology (Przyhodnik / Wedening 2014).

A third design increases the possibilities for interactivity: students can use the constructive-interactive digital school books intervene and create or change content. You can (co) design texts and construct knowledge offers. There are currently very few examples of this in schools. The digital school books myWorldSocial studies by Pearson internally link to myStory Book, an app that enables learners to create their own books. The educational concept behind the textbook is that students learn sustainably when they write stories about the topics covered. The pupils interact with the digital textbook by creating new texts. Here, too, the interactivity does not change the published digital textbook.

The situation is different with the OER textbooks co-written by students, which Robin DeRosa (2016) describes. What is special about them is that they are constitutive are open to changes and adaptations. The teacher can update, correct or adapt them for their own context. Nevertheless, digital school books with increased interactivity options, which invite not only teachers but also students to actively intervene and create or change content, are still very rare, even in the "open" (OER) area. DeRosa, on the other hand, invited her students to write, update and expand a digital textbook with her. In their detailed report there are indications how such a project in the field of political education - also in schools - could take shape. An important insight for DeRosa was that the project not only included a free book with audiovisual elements thanks to easy-to-use software (Pressbooks) but that it has also fundamentally changed their pedagogical practice and learners' attitudes towards textbooks and learning. The latter is discussed again below.

Opportunities and challenges of digital textbooks for political education

In order to discuss the opportunities and challenges of the three forms of digital textbooks described (PDF, multimedia-interactive, constructive-interactive), the following explanations are based on four central - albeit not undisputed - dimensions of the political competence to be imparted in political lessons (Detjen et al. 2012, GPJE 2004) structured. Basically, it makes pragmatic sense for schools with notebook or tablet classes to replace the heavy printed school books with electronic ones. Little changes in the use of textbooks: digital textbooks - just like printed textbooks - can be used as a working medium, implementation medium or accompanying medium (Langner 2010). However, if you focus on the specifics of political education, a number of other opportunities and challenges of the medium become visible.

Digital textbooks and specialist knowledge

The fastest changes are currently taking place in the area of ​​expertise. First, the often criticized errors in political textbooks can be corrected quickly. The Michigan Open Book Project loads user z. B. one to submit revision requests via the website. Second, digital school books promise to remedy "a structural weakness of [printed] school books" (ibid .: 438): although they are also "not written against the background of a specific learning group, but based on assumptions about an ideal learning group" (ibid. ), personalization, individual learning and inner differentiation are at the heart of some born-digital School books. The keywords here are adaptive learning and Educational data mining. With these technologies built into newer digital textbooks, the books are supposed to react directly to the respective learning activities of each individual student: If a task on technical concepts is easily solved by the person, a more difficult task follows; if the task is answered incorrectly, an easier task or a hint where the learners can find possible solutions follows.

Adaptive learning or Educational data mining is controversial, however: to be effective, large amounts of personal data about learners must be collected and correlated with one another. Jose Ferreira, CEO of Knewton, one of the largest companies in the field of adaptive learning, compares Knewton with Amazon, Google, Netflix etc .: Where the latter get up to 100 "data points" per user per day, Knewton receives five to five through their platform ten million data points per learner per day. Without this data, individualized learning offers in the area of ​​conceptual specialist knowledge cannot be generated. With their collection, however, concerns arise about data protection and data sovereignty (see Schaar in this volume), mainly because an explicit goal of the Educational data mining is the prediction of success or failure of individual learners.

Digital school books and political judgment

Supporting the competence "to analyze and reflect on political events, problems and controversies as well as questions of economic and social development under factual and value aspects" (GPJE 2004: 13) is neither easier nor more difficult with digital textbooks than with printed ones. In both cases, it is true that "a problem-oriented and exemplary political education cannot rely on the still predominantly systematically structured school books as the main medium for structuring learning processes" (Pohl 2014: 188). One chance for digital school books could be the possibility of critically reflecting on school books as a medium of knowledge. We know from other subjects that students attribute the status of authoritative knowledge to textbooks; they mostly overlook the fact that a school book is also written by authors with political perspectives (Ahlrichs / Macgilchrist 2017). Digital sources tend to be questioned critically. What authority is assigned to digital textbooks is an open research question.

Digital school books and political agency

The communicative dimension of political action can be guided through tasks and written or visual impulses in both printed and digital school books. Multimedia digital school books incorporate audiovisual sources and links that allow direct networking with online sources, e.g. B. controversial political statements or current reporting, enable. Thus, diverse sources stimulate the formulation and representation of opinions and interests, articulation and argumentation as well as negotiation and decision-making processes.

For Detjen et al. (2012: 66) suggesting the participatory dimension of political action, i.e. voluntary action in the political system or influencing decisions in the political system, is not possible in specialist political classes. If, however, schools that comply with educational policy requirements and convey state-sanctioned knowledge are understood as part of the political system, then the cooperative writing of a constructive-interactive digital textbook as an open textbook offers unusual opportunities to make participatory political action tangible within the specialist classroom ( see above and DeRosa 2016). Through this process, the students deal with all subject and competence areas of the core curriculum relevant to them at the same time, because digital textbooks have to implement the curriculum.

In contrast to action-oriented methods, e.g. B. in simulation games, the design of a shared, open digital textbook for political subject lessons is not about a simulation. Instead, the students make decisions that influence a "real" textbook that is used by other learners (outside of their own course). The "political power or control over economic resources" is here, contrary to the thesis of Detjen et al. (2012: 88) "really experienced in class" (Besand 2014: 483). The students clarify their political positions and articulate their knowledge; they negotiate which knowledge is to be included as valid specialist knowledge in the digital textbook; they decide what understanding of politics, community, or civic virtues is presented in the textbook; they solve conflicts over the distribution of resources, etc. The democratic ideal of this process is clearly more participatory than representative (Pohl 2014: 191). For Brombach, editing publicly accessible texts is part of the "vision of political education in the 21st century" because it supports "an active attitude towards political discourse" (Brombach 2014: 115).

Some challenges in creating and editing open digital textbooks are to be mentioned (DeRosa 2016): Firstly, not all young people are so good at current technologies that they can use them without instruction. Secondly, there is an additional expenditure of time for the teacher. Thirdly, the openness achieved means great visibility in public space for young people. Fourth, it becomes difficult for teachers to control the lessons precisely and - fifth - to evaluate them individually (Besand 2014: 476). The fact that - sixth - the social notions of authoritative knowledge and expertise (sender-receiver model: adults write and young people receive) are interrupted by this "open pedagogy" is certainly seen by some teachers as an opportunity, but by others as a disadvantage ( see for example the discussions on Twitter under the hashtags #digped, #OpenPed and #OER).

Digital school books, political attitudes and motivation

Although there are also proven preferences for working with printed textbooks over digital media, interest in teaching and learning motivation generally increase when high-quality multimedia-interactive digital textbooks are used (Dobler 2015). In addition, interactive game elements and immediate success reports can reinforce the feeling of competence, especially in the area of ​​specialist knowledge. There seems to be a more fundamental effect on attitudes and motivation in the constructive-interactive textbook project. According to DeRosa, the dynamics of her teaching have changed radically with the Open Textbook - from a transmission model to a problem-oriented model. Learners showed great interest in the subject and showed great commitment. Cooperative writing for an audience makes specific political skills tangible. Through participatory processes, as they also develop in other media production processes in the classroom (Besand 2014), the civic virtues or basic values ​​of the political order are not only analyzed on a cognitive level, but also made directly tangible.


Digital textbooks offer a range of opportunities and challenges for political education. Three forms of digital textbooks were described in this article:

  1. Simple PDF digital copieswhich are easier to access and lighter in weight, but have little added value compared to printed school books.
  2. Multimedia interactive digital school booksthat offer the possibility of individualization and differentiation at the level of conceptual specialist knowledge, but with the problem that the students are turned into transparent subjects through the collection and evaluation of personal data. These digital school books can incorporate a variety of audiovisual, interactive or online sources and thus stimulate communicative political action in a more diverse way than printed school books; Immediate automated feedback can also strengthen the policy-related feeling of competence. However, the systematic structure of a school textbook does not suggest problem-oriented and exemplary political education, even in the digital area.
  3. Constructive-interactive digital school booksin which pupils can help determine decisions, construct knowledge offers and edit content. The potential of this third group lies, among other things, in an "open pedagogy" in which young people develop their political ability to act as well as their political attitudes and motivations through active participation. In contrast to other digital media produced in specialist lessons, participatory practices in the creation of digital textbooks link their focus and competence orientation more closely to the required core curriculum or syllabus. You break fundamentally with the classic social notions of authoritative knowledge and expertise in school.

Link collection

Ministry of Education digital textbook portal, Ecuador:

OER textbooks in Poland:

Open SUNY Textbooks:

California Digital Open Source Library:

Michigan Open Book Project:

myWorld Social Studies (Pearson):

my storybook:


Relevant hashtags on Twitter for the English-language discussion on digital school books include: #edtech, #digped, #OpenPed and #OER.


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Brombach, Guido (2014): Analog and digital in political education, in: Schröder, Hartmut (Ed.): Politics and political education in the digital world: Opportunities and challenges, Reinbek-Munich, pp. 103-116.

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