E-Textbooks: A Love/Hate Relationship for College Students

More and more college textbooks are now ”going digital.”  With the iPad, Kindle, Nook and other tablets showing up everywhere, and nearly every college student arriving on campus with a computer, the move to digital format textbooks is a natural progression.  Digital textbooks may take several formats — downloadable material or online material.  But the assumption that innovation equals improvement may not always be true in the case of e-textbooks, and there is growing resistance to the use of e-textbooks.

Although the millennial generation loves electronics, students have not all rushed to use digitally formatted textbooks. Both Amazon and Apple have instituted pilot projects at several universities, with mixed results.  Publishing company Pearson conducted a study that showed only about half of students preferred e-textbooks. Students preferred paper formatted books for extended reading and studying, and students’ instincts may be valid.  Some research has indicated that comprehension may be higher for material read from paper.

One of the biggest factors of whether or not your student loves or hates his e-textbook may be when and how he studies.  Although your student may not have a choice of format, if he does, it is important that he think carefully about how he uses his textbooks, how and when he accesses material, and how he studies.

Why some students love e-textbooks

For some students, the advent of e-textbooks is a wonderful thing.  Initial cost of the books may be less, there is no wait for shipping as content can be made available immediately, they appreciate search features and online dictionary/glossary, and they make use of interactive features and web tie-ins.  Some textbooks come with a feature that allows the textbook to be read aloud and on-line versions sometimes allow students to share annotations.  Some tablet formats allow for backlit reading, which can be an important feature for reading in less well-lit areas.

Why some students dislike e-textbooks

In spite of some of the convenient features of e-textbooks, some students still prefer paper reading — and actually print out online material if the feature is available (which may not always be possible).

Although the cost of e-textbooks may be less than paper versions of texts, students need to consider the initial cost of the device needed to access it.  If the format is online and the student already has a computer, this may not be a factor, but if students need an e-reader, that cost should be factored in.  Unlike paper textbooks, however, e-textbooks have no resale value.  When students consider the cost of a paper textbook, they often plan to buy a used copy and/or resell the book after the semester.

If the e-textbook is only available online, using it in the classroom may or may not be possible. Streamed textbooks also require internet availability.  (Rental e-books may be streamed.) If students do not have a reader, using the book in the classroom requires bringing a laptop — which, in addition to being awkward,  may or may not be allowed in the classroom.

Use of the e-textbook itself, in spite of interactive or search features, may be difficult for some students.  Students comment about difficulty with highlighting and making margin notes.  These features are generally possible, but may be awkward or require learning new techniques.

Finally, students may have more difficulty remembering the information in e-textbooks because of a phenomenon called ”cognitive mapping.”  This is what happens when you remember a piece of information as you visualize where it was on the page or within the book.  You associate the information with certain cues.  Because of the nature of online material, students may have more difficulty ”placing” the information.  This may be one reason why students often prefer to print out online material.

It comes down to personal preference

E-textbooks are probably not going to go away — at least not soon.  They are becoming increasingly available.  In some cases, your student may not have a choice about format.  If a choice is available, it is important that your student think carefully about how she uses her books.  She needs to consider cost, longevity, and ease of use. Finding the format that works best for your student is important.

If your student does not have a choice of format, but has strong feelings, it is important that she give some feedback to faculty members. This information may be helpful as the faculty member chooses materials another semester.

Note: Some links in our post are for affiliate products. If you use our links, College Parent Central receives a small percentage of your purchase price. This does not change the cost to you.  We think it’s only fair to let you know that.

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New Textbook Information Available to Students

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2 thoughts on “E-Textbooks: A Love/Hate Relationship for College Students”

  1. Thanks for your comment, Aquaria. You are certainly not alone is your dislike of e-textbooks. It is interesting how split opinions are. I’ll be curious to see whether e-textbooks stay around or eventually die out. People seem to have a similarly split opinion about online learning. At least at the moment, there seems to be something for everyone.

  2. I hate e-books. I’m in a study group where one of us uses an e-book, and the rest of us use a print book. Guess who always has to bring the print book, because the one person’s tablet crashes or freezes, or there’s no internet access, or can’t connect to the internet, or the internet is too slow for the book to work, or they’re out of juice, or because the tablet insists on doing a software update and won’t proceed any further until that is accomplished, or they’re dealing with some kind of malware, or because the software doesn’t recognize the search feature, or it won’t zoom, or..ad infinitum, ad nauseum?

    Yet my paper textbook works in all conditions except the dark. It doesn’t care if there’s internet access or not. It doesn’t freeze or crash. The indexes tend to be quite good. They tend to be large enough for anyone to read. I can scribble in margins, or even in between them. I tend to buy my textbooks, so I add my own illustrations, or my own doodles to those that are provided.

    If you’re having a problem with the weight of textbooks, to which I entirely relate, get a rolling backpack like I did.

    Until then, the e-book format is a nuisance with no advantages, other than the weight differential.


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