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The Textbook Divide | Teens are rejecting textbooks in favor of online tools, and parents are struggling to keep up. By Elly Schmidt-Hopper

Zev Marx-Kahn isn't an average teenager: He stars in musicals, plays lead alto sax in the Berkeley High School Jazz Band, and describes himself as "super anal about grades." He will enter his senior year at Berkeley High School positioned for ongoing academic success.

Yet the way Marx-Kahn gathers and learns information is common for his generation of internet and smartphone natives. These days, students use education apps to study and clarify complicated concepts. They share and collaborate with classmates, using group texts and FaceTime. They also share and collaborate nationally through apps and websites. Textbooks, once essential study aids regardless of their quality, are now just another resource among many, and often unpopular.

"If the textbook is good, I will learn from the book," Marx-Kahn said. "If the textbook is bad, I'll teach myself."

His mother, Rani Marx, thinks her son's ambivalence toward textbooks leans closer to rejection. "In classes with textbooks he doesn't use them often," she said. "There's something about textbooks that's not appealing, not immediate enough, or not as relatable as electronic resources."

This sentiment seems nearly universal among high schoolers; given the choice, they prefer online resources to textbooks.

Among the most popular education sites is Quizlet, a free app and website where students and teachers can upload "study sets," essentially class-specific collections of digital flashcards. A student can search for one of her classes, let's say world history, and hundreds of existing study sets will pop up, each with flashcards and associated practice quizzes to test retention. Or she can make her own study set tailored to her class and share it with the entire Quizlet community.

Students also use Khan Academy, another free website and app that focuses on math and science. Study topics are divided by grade (K-12) or level (early math to AP calculus). Within each level or grade, multiple webinar videos are organized by topic. (Imaginary numbers, remember those?) When you play a webinar, the voice of a teacher explains the math happening visually on screen.

Using apps on a smartphone, a student can flip through flashcards or watch a math video on the go. Now a teen's most important social tool is also her most convenient learning tool.

"If I don't understand something and I don't want to ask a teacher, I'll look it up online," said Della Martinez, who recently completed her sophomore year at San Lorenzo Valley High. "It doesn't happen often, only some of the time when it's hard work or a specific class or something. I don't get annoyed with it."

Even teachers are recommending online resources now, says Francesca Martinez, Della's older sister, now a senior. In her experience, this is something new.

"Before in high school we used textbooks, never computers," she said. "We'd have to use the textbooks."

Now it's common to use computers in many of her classes. Both use online resources regularly to study and do homework, although Francesca Martinez prefers to use a computer. She gets distracted on her smartphone.

This shift in learning method, while natural for young people, reveals a growing gap in experience and expectation between parents and their children.

"I have my school apps on my phone," Della said. "Sometimes I don't go on a computer, but I go on my app to do work. [My dad] will be like, 'Get off your phone!' and I'll be like, 'I'm doing homework,' and he won't believe me."

Smartphone use is now nearly universal among teens. According to a Pew Research Center study, 94 percent of Americans age 18-29 own a smartphone. Although teens are a younger cohort and not included in the study, the high schoolers interviewed for this story couldn't name a friend or classmate who didn't own a smartphone. Even kids with fewer financial resources seem to be conducting their lives electronically.

"It has removed the parent from the equation," said Kinchasa Taylor, whose twin daughters are entering seventh grade at Albany Middle School. "The parent isn't going to help if the kid is working on the computer."

In Taylor's opinion, the shifting focus to online, electronic learning is letting children down in a fundamental way.

"Kids are constantly on the tablet, constantly on the computer, and they aren't catching things," she said. "They're human. There's all these processes you go through [with a book] that you don't with the computer. The solutions are right there, so there are no steps, there's no process."

She doesn't let her kids have smartphones, which she says is uncommon in middle school.

Due to the ubiquity of online learning, parents are noticing the gap in understanding can work both ways—for example, their children are not as comfortable referencing textbooks for information.

"The way you find things in textbooks is not the way you find something online," Rani Marx said. "When [Zev] asks for help, which is not often, I'll ask, 'Did you look in your textbook?' He's says 'no,' and I'll show him a section on it. He'll say, 'Oh, how did you find that?'"

This can leave schools grappling with the best way to teach students. In 2015, Berkeley High School introduced a new Common Core math curriculum. The school didn't provide textbooks for the new classes, instead giving students written modules with problems and exercises. The new curriculum caused confusion among students and parents trying to help with homework. A small group of concerned parents founded Berkeley High School Math Assist, and uploaded study reviews for each module on a website they developed. The group essentially provided an online textbook for the classes, in PDF form.

The incident proved that while there's no way for textbooks to be as nimble, current, or interactive as apps, sometimes having all the information you need combined simply and in one place is more important.

As smartphone use increases among school age children, how kids choose to learn will likely continue to shift to the digital realm—to parents' chagrin, perhaps. There's one thing, however, that students and parents seem to agree upon unanimously: When it comes to learning, nothing beats a great teacher, preferably a human teacher, live in front of the class.


Like his peers, Zev Marx-Kahn gets most of his information from apps and websites, not textbooks. Photo by Lori Eanes.