Even as administrators and legislators push schools to dump printed books in favor of electronic ones, evidence mounts that paper books have important advantages as tools for learning. Last month, I reported on a study out of the University of Washington which showed that students find printed books more flexible than e-books in supporting a wide range of reading and learning styles. Now comes a major study from the University of California system showing that students continue to prefer printed books to e-books and that many undergraduates complain that they have trouble “learning, retaining, and concentrating” when reading from screens.
The University of California Libraries began a large e-textbook pilot program in 2008. In late 2010, more than 2,500 students and faculty members were surveyed to assess the results of the program. Overall, 58% of the respondents said they used e-books for their academic work, with the percentage varying from 55% for undergraduates to 57% for faculty to 67% for graduate students. The respondents who used e-books were then asked whether they preferred e-books or printed books for their studies. Overall, 44% said they preferred printed books and 35% said they preferred e-books, with the remainder expressing no preference. The preference for print was strongest among undergraduates, 53% of whom preferred printed books, with only 27% preferring e-books. Graduate students preferred printed books by 45% to 35%, and faculty preferred printed books by 43% to 33%.
The most illuminating part of the survey came when respondents were asked to explain their preferences. The answers suggest that while students prefer e-books when they need to search through a book quickly to find a particular fact or passage, they prefer printed books for deep, attentive reading. “E-books divide my attention,” said one undergraduate. “Paper … keeps me focused and away from distractions that may arise from computer usage,” said another. “I have some difficulty paying careful attention to long passages on my computer,” said another. “Reading on the computer makes it harder for me to understand the information,” said another. Commented a graduate student: “I am a better reader when I have the print copy in front of me.”
Another graduate student, in the social sciences, explained the different strengths of printed books and e-books:
I answered that I prefer print books, generally. However, the better answer would be that print books are better in some situations, while e-books are better in others. Each have their role – e-books are great for assessing the book, relatively quick searches, like encyclopedias or fact checking, checking bibliography for citations, and reading selected chapters or the introduction. If I want to read the entire book, I prefer print. If I want to interact extensively with the text, I would buy the book to mark up with my annotations; if I want to read for background (not as intensively) I will check out a print book from the library if possible. All options have their place. I am in humanities/social sciences, so print is still very much a part of my research life at this point.
Several respondents noted that they often used both electronic and print versions of the same book, “utilizing digital copies of a title for search and discovery tasks, and moving to corresponding paper copies for reading, note taking, text comparison, and deep study.” Two-thirds of undergraduates said it was important to them to have access to print copies of books even when electronic versions were available.
Two years ago, then-California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger dismissed printed textbooks as outdated. “Our kids get their information from the internet, downloaded onto their iPods, and in Twitter feeds to their cell phones,” he said. “Basically, kids are feeling as comfortable with their electronic devices as I was with my pencils and crayons. So why are California’s school students still forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks?” Many school administrators and government bureaucrats make similar assumptions, with little or no evidence to back them up. Maybe if they went out and looked at how students actually read, study, and learn, they’d see that paper books and electronic books are different tools and that the printed page remains superior to the screen in many cases.