An Empirical Examination of Digital Texts & Student Engagement in the High School Social Studies Classroom

Sarah Lundy, Principal Investigator

A 2012 study conducted in collaboration with the Portland State University Graduate School of Education and Principal Investigator, Sarah Lundy. Research was conducted in a large, public high school in the Portland metropolitan area and compared the experiences of highly diverse tenth grade World History classes working with traditional Choices print units to the experiences of tenth grade World History classes working digitally with Choices iBooks Textbook edition. The mixed-methods design includes data from classroom observations, student surveys, student writing samples & teacher interviews.

Research Findings

All of the teachers included in the study expressed a strong preference for Choices iBooks Textbook edition over the printed text. Teachers found that the iBook edition was highly engaging. This enhanced digital edition also offered students critical support for multiple academic skills and access to rigorous content.

Teachers preferred the iBooks Textbook edition because students were more engaged in the learning experience and practiced more sophisticated academic skills.

The teachers included in the study described their students as highly engaged by the learning experience provided by Choices iBook edition. One teacher described his observation of the contrast in print and iBook experiences as follows:

“There was a difference between the kids reading on the iPads and the kids reading from the packets. [The iBooks Textbook] seemed to help the kids stay more engaged with the reading task.”

Another teacher offered his understanding of his students’ attitude toward the iBooks Textbook as follows:

“The kids totally want the technology because it does make a lot of things simpler…there’s a lot more you can do with technology…it’s more interesting and exciting…they’re engaging the world in the way that they know how to engage it…I think on multiple levels the process is significantly better digitally than it is not. I mean significantly better.”

The teachers included in the study were most enthusiastic about the level of student engagement when students used the iBook edition to create learning products such as summaries of main ideas or analyses of the text. A majority of teachers found the learning process to be “more valuable” when students used the iBook edition. One teacher described the student engagement provided by Choices iBook editions as follows:

“They have to really engage the material in a way they haven’t in the past….I do think that it takes more time but that it’s a much better experience.”

The iBooks Textbook edition allowed teachers to differentiate to meet a wide range of student needs more flexibly.

The teachers included in the study appreciated that Choices iBooks Textbooks provided more opportunities to effectively differentiate learning for diverse student needs and preferences. Teachers in the study noted that the iBook edition offered “many different avenues for exploration and play.” The additional support for differentiation described by the teachers in this study demonstrates the argument in the literature on digital learning that multimodal experiences are inherently supportive of the multiple learning styles that diverse students bring to the classroom (Berson and Balyta, 2004; Rose and Meyer, 2002). One teacher described his experience as follows:

“I get excited about [the iBooks Textbook] because I think that it opens up a lot of different opportunities and allows you ways to differentiate more effectively….The advantage is that [the iBooks Textbook] brings in a lot of different types of kids. You know, the kid who is really technical and likes to read or the kid that is really artistic….A lot of different personalities can be pulled in with [the iBook].”

Teachers appreciated the critical technology skills that students developed as they learned rigorous social studies content.

A majority of the teachers included in the study described the technology skills developed by Choices iBooks Textbooks as evident and beneficial. The teachers often characterized the technology skills required to navigate the digital text as adding a layer of complexity to student learning. However, teachers also described the additional technology skills as an important benefit for students. One teacher described the long-term benefits of the iBook in the following terms:

“We have to prepare these kids to go out and make a living in the real world…The reality is that they’re going to have to be very flexible and fluid in the way they engage technology and very comfortable with ‘Ok, I’m learning this. How do you learn it?'”

The classroom observation data further indicated that the iBooks Textbook supported the development of new technology skills. For example, students were often observed exhibiting technology skills such as accessing the iBook’s embedded multimedia content. During the third and fourth classroom observations, students were frequently observed declining technical support offered by their teacher because they had developed greater technical comfort after only a few days of working with the iBook edition.


Students found the Choices iBooks Textbook edition to be an engaging, challenging and relevant learning experience that was highly applicable to their lives outside the classroom.

Students were highly engaged by the iBooks Textbook edition and enjoyed a better learning experience.

Students who worked with Choices iBooks Textbook edition reported finding the content and the skills learned during the unit relevant at higher rates than students who worked with Choices’ print edition. For example, more than one-third of students who worked with the Choices iBook edition cited the ability to learn new technology skills as the “best” part of their World History learning experience. Many student survey responses were similar to following student comment: “The iBooks made work easier & more fun.” In contrast, students who worked with the traditional Choices unit were between two and four times as likely to report reading the unit’s content as an area of academic struggle. Moreover, students who worked with the traditional Choices unit reported “taking notes” to be the “worst” part of the unit at considerably higher rates than the students in the study who worked with the Choices iBook edition.

The classroom observation data offered additional evidence that the iBook edition supported student engagement. Student collaboration and student investment in their own learning were both more prevalent in the World History classes that worked with the iBook edition. For example, classes that worked with the Choices iBook edition demonstrated more frequent observations of students debating about the unit’s content without being prompted to do so by their teacher. Students who worked with the Choices iBook edition also remained after class to discuss content with their teacher or peers more often.

The iBooks Textbook edition offered diverse students access to academic rigor and technology skills.

The analysis of student survey data indicated that the large population of students of color and non-native English speakers included in the study reported similar learning experiences with the iBook edition on a majority of indicators. For example, students of color and non-native English speakers reported enjoying the human rights content; finding the content relevant; and learning information and skills they will use outside of class at almost exactly equivalent levels to those reported by white students and native English speakers. Therefore, the analysis of student survey data strongly suggested that the iBook edition did not create new barriers for learning in the classroom for students of color or non-native English speakers but, rather, broadly supported the development of social studies skills for all students. English Language Learners experienced additional support for learning rigorous content because of the multimedia learning supports included in the iBook edition. Moreover, an English Language Learner specialist included in the study expressed the belief that the iBook edition’s embedded multimedia content such as the “Scholars Online” videos offered students with limited English fluency better access to the content than the traditional units.

For more about this study, please contact Dr. Sarah Lundy at slundy@ttsd.k12.or.us.

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