Since the first introduction of digital course materials, the subject of whether these materials have actually helped students learn better has been hotly debated. In the past two decades, digital course materials have changed significantly, leaving researchers, professors and even students wondering whether digital course materials and etextbooks were worth the investment in changing curriculum and bringing more technology into the classroom. Though there hasn’t been nearly enough time to develop comprehensive studies on students who use the newest forms of etextbooks and digital course materials available on mobile devices, some recent studies are shedding some light on the effectiveness of these materials at helping students learn and retain knowledge.
In 2003, a study of college-level biology students given access to a CD-Rom lab manual that included videos, animations and tips determined that students who used the CD-Rom based materials did not show increases in content mastery or assessment scores. Fast forward to a study conducted from 2009-10 where a group of college students who were given access to online digital course materials showed a marked increase in assessment scores. In both studies, students’ access to digital course materials was supplemental to traditional classroom instruction. While the results of these two studies fall at both ends of the spectrum, it’s important to note the drastic change in how the course materials were delivered to the students. Though the former study took place only 7 seemingly short years ago, the difference in technology available to students today is light years ahead. In 2003, students who participated in the study commented that they did have computers at home, but failed to note if these computers were portable allowing students’ access to the enhanced course material while in the classroom. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see students in class following along with a laptop or iPad, giving them increased access to digital course materials while in the classroom. It’s possible that the advances in technology and the general availability and mobility of that technology had a significant impact on the results of both studies.
These recent advances in technology, particularly mobile devices, along with the results of the 2009-10 study draw some promising conclusions about the future of digital course materials in the classroom and their ability to augment the student learning experience. Providing additional insight, students in an 8th grade algebra class in Riverside, California comment on the usefulness of having digital course materials available to them in the classroom. Students who might normally have struggled with complex equations are given additional resources to help solve problems, and are able to work at their own pace, creating an experience that lends to their learning.
Hopefully, future studies on student use of digital course materials will shed more light on the effectiveness of the tools at increasing learning in students at all levels. Until then, it will be in the hands of the instructors and the school districts to determine if digital course materials are right for their student populations and are effective in increasing learning both inside and outside of the classroom.