Advice for using an online math textbook

In this Year Of Massive Transformations in my school (many new faculty, new administrative structure with loads new administrators, a new department head for me), we’re also overhauling the high school math curriculum. We’re really trying to come up with a great Algebra II/Precalculus sequence, and I’m involved with helping codify the non-accelerated track. We’re definitely switching textbooks (the one we’re using now is just too hard for the kids).

In our search, we came across an Algebra II textbook published by Holt. We liked the examples, the number and kinds of homework problems, the layout, and the sequencing. (Although we’ll deviate from the sequencing a bit.) The best part about it: if we buy the textbook (around $80), we get access to the e-book for 6 years for free. And from what I understood from talking to the representative, we can just pass on the password from student to student from year to year.

Our Student Council is soon going to be approaching department heads about getting e-books for some of the courses (the physical books are really heavy and expensive). It makes really good sense because we’re a laptop school! I’m going to request that the school purchase these books and charge students $20/year for access to the e-book. And then for students who want to borrow a physical textbook, they can get them from us.

But this all seems very logistically challenging. I can anticipate a few problems already (importantly: what do you do with the excuse “I didn’t have internet access where I was last night”?)

Which is why I bring this to you. Have any of you used online textbooks before? Anything I should keep in mind when making this decision? Any great benefits to it? Any great drawbacks?

And if you haven’t used online textbooks, what sort of problems would you anticipate?



  1. I haven’t used them with students. However, I am using an ebook for my grad school class. One problem I have is working with graphical representations. I want to be able to draw on the graph!

    I also like to annotate my textbooks. I can’t do that with my online version. (if there’s a way, can someone tell me how?).

  2. We went 1:1 with Tablet PCs this year in grades 7, 9, and 10. In the Middle School (where I work in ed tech), we opted for e-texts for science, history, and foreign language. In a recent survey of students and faculty, the e-texts were a mixed bag. The major benefits (price and not having to carry around heavy books) were off-set by the problems students had reading on a small screen and trying to navigate a digital document.

    Here’s a link that includes a graph of student responses to e-texts:

    Since we use Tablets and OneNote, any page of the text can be “printed” to OneNote and annotated (or if it’s a PDF like the science text it can be inked using PDF Annotator) but most students don’t do that since it’s an extra step.

    Overall, e-texts sound promising but until the publishers spend some time learning about the end-user experience, they don’t live up their hype. Hopefully that will change and we can truly go paperless :-)

  3. At my former school (1-1 laptop public junior high), we had a number of Holt online textbooks – math, languages (Spanish, French, German), English, and science 7 & 8. Science 9 was Prentice Hall. We supplemented with Beyond Books, United Streaming and tons of online resources, especially in English, languages, and social studies.
    We began using online texts in 2002, when they were mostly just online pdfs. As time went on, they evolved into what they are today. For the sort of instruction being done, they were highly useful and meant more engagement than paper texts.
    At my current school, another 1-1, we have CD texts for most languages and math. Resources for science, English, and social studies are primarily teacher-created or teacher-gathered. Of course, English resources include novels, plays, etc.
    Now that we’ve added OneNote to our program (beginning to implement tablets in place of traditional laptops), we’re also using tablets for annotation. I love the idea of teachers authoring their own texts and/or assembling the best available resources online. When that isn’t practical, online texts can be an excellent tool in the classroom and beyond.

  4. Unless students have a way to interact with the digital text, the biggest benefit is that they don’t have to lug their math books back and forth from school to home. We use the Haese and Harris series from Australia and it does have some interesting and useful self-tutorial videos as well as some applets to help explain/explore concepts. Again, to be totally useful students would need access to a laptop or computer during classroom instruction.

    We use our digital texts with our TabletPCs in grades 10 and 11. The students seem to like it because they can insert screen clippings into OneNote and then annotate them (as Jackie was lamenting). They can also clip in the homework problems and do the work right along side the actual problem, which seems to help organization for a lot of students. I’ve also showed the students how to insert ‘graph paper’ into their work so that they always have graph paper handy.

  5. Dear all,

    Thanks so much (SO MUCH) for taking the time to responding to this post to help me out. I am really glad to get some concrete things to think about before embarking on this.

    I’ll keep you how our discussions go and what our final decision is on this blog.

    You’re all my favorites for responding!

  6. Online textbooks are simply great and so convenient. I have personally not used one but have seen many students use it and they all love it. No lugging the book around, access from anywhere with internet, less expensive and environmentally friendly. It’s a good idea to charge students a lump sum of $20 and let them access it online. Students pretty much have internet access everywhere they go these days and as far as the excuse of “I didn’t have internet access where I was last night” is concerned, they can come up with excuse for everything so while it should be taken into consideration, it should not be a deterring factor given so many other benefits.

    Increasing number of students are seeking online math tutoring outside of their school or college, and having online access to books is much more handy for these students too- whether they are at home, or library or anywhere else.

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