How e-books and a national digital library system could boost student achievement

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America’s K-12 students would benefit handsomely from a well-stocked national digital library system blended in carefully with school libraries and public libraries. And disadvantaged students without books at home might be among the biggest winners.

imageI’ve felt that way since the early 1990s, but now here’s further evidence or at least a very strong hint.

Nora Carr, a columnist for eSchool News and a chief of staff for the Guilford County school system in North Carolina, says in an essay headlined Can eBooks help bridge achievement gaps?:

…as more traditional book content goes digital and smart phones act as electronic readers, educators are left wondering whether technology will make achievement gaps even wider—or whether electronic books might act as a bridge for students traditionally hamstrung by family circumstances and other issues neither they nor their teachers control.

Conducted by university researchers in Nevada, California, and Australia, the study—published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility—found that having a 500-book library at home has as great an effect as having university-educated parents. The 20-year study analyzed data from 27 different countries. In the United States, having books in the home pushes students an average of 2.4 years further in school; worldwide, the average is 3.2 years.

Mind you, this is a study of paper books in homes, but a well-integrated national digital library system could make it apply to e-books as well if:

1. Teachers and librarians work closely with students to identify their needs and interests and encourage them to follow their passions. The 500-books-in-the home comparison will be meaningless if the students can’t get excited about reading. This means appropriate changes in education and professional development for both teachers and librarians. The potential upside is huge. E-books are the most cost-effective way to allow students to benefit from just the right books for them, individually—in line with S. R. Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science. Beware of doing away not just with school libraries but also with trained librarians who can help overworked teachers guide students to the right books (update: also see somewhat related School Library Journal article from the newsletter Extra Helping—thanks @kishizuka). Search engines alone aren’t enough. Writing and thought are linked—hey, I’ve been there, done that, as the author of more than half a dozen books—and Google does not teach you how to think or evaluate material to back up your point. Even with Google-style searchers, you might not even be aware of the best material’s existence. Technology alone cannot solve every discovery problem. Update: The very youngest children could still receive paper books to help hook them on reading, with e-books offered as a way to expose them to a much greater variety of titles matching their precise needs and interests.

2. We also undertake a massive family literacy campaign to excite parents, too, about reading—since young readers could benefit from positive role models. We mustn’t neglect parents, whether they’re couples or single mothers or fathers. Not all parents will be receptive. But we can make it easier to be that way. Simply put, we need a well-stocked digital library system for all Americans, elite and nonelite, and it should offer popular-level books and not be limited to, say, textbooks.

The entire eSchool News column might not be online for all, but if you’re an educator or work in a related industry, you can apply to for free digital and paper subscriptions. Well worth it.

Detail #1: Mea culpa about the best material, and not just because of limited time! I’d love to be able to read and reproduce the actual study legally and in full without the $31.50 price tag. And just think how students, too, could benefit from access to source material—especially, the bright ones in cash-strapped districts! Digital library system, anyone? Meanwhile, yes, I intend to catch up with the complete paper and might do a follow-up post or an update of this one.

Detail #2: As shown by the example of the journal article, the national digital library system should include other forms of text besides books—as well as multimedia, educational software, and the rest.

Detail #3: Yes, a national digital library system would also be a godsend for higher education as well as research. I’ve merely focused here on the K-12 benefits.

Update, May 20, 2011: Also see a Reading is Fundamental study of the relationship between content and student achievement, as well a New York Times article mentioning other studies and noting the effect of parents' income on the extent of children's reading choices. I heartily approve of paper-book-related efforts, but long term, an e-book-based strategy could be better for both the students and the taxpayers.

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