Students to e-textbooks: no thanks


Because the horse is not dead, I feel I’m allowed to keep beating it. So: Another study of student attitudes toward paper and electronic textbooks has appeared, and like earlier ones — see here, here, here, for example — it reveals that our so-called digital natives prefer print. The new study, by four researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto, appears in the Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education. “Although advocates of digitized information believe that millennial students would embrace the paperless in-person or online classroom, this is not proving to be the case,” they write, as studies to date find “most students reiterating their preference for paper textbooks.”

They point out that a lot of the research up to now has started “with the assumption that the innovation [in e-textbooks] is an improvement over previous technology”:

Undergraduate students are generally assumed to be skilled in using digital resources for acquiring the knowledge necessary to achieve success in tests and exams. However, researchers often overlook students’ personal beliefs about how they learn and study most effectively. Their resistance to replacing paper textbooks with e-textbooks together with an ongoing desire to be able to print electronic content suggests that paper-based information serves students’ needs better in the educational context.

To explore the reasons for the continuing resistance to digital books, they surveyed and conducted focus groups with current students who have used both e-books and printed books in classes. They found students believe “that the paper textbook remains the superior technology for studying and achieving academic success.”  Print’s primary advantage is that it presents “fewer distractions,” the students said: “The paper textbook helps them to avoid the distractions of being on the computer or the Internet, the temptations associated with checking e-mail, Facebook, or surfing the Web for unrelated information.” A second benefit is that printed works  encourage deeper study: “Students believe they learn more using the paper textbook versus the e- textbook in part because they are able to study longer with less physical and mental fatigue.”

Students also felt that highlighting and otherwise marking passages can be done more effectively with printed pages than digital ones. Here’s a simple but telling example: “electronic sticky notes, in particular, do not provide the same memory assistance as the paper sticky note. Students feel that they have to remember to purposely search for the electronic sticky note, in contrast to the easily observable paper sticky note.” Students also liked that “they have more choices for when and where they can access” a print book’s content compared with an e-book’s. Finally, the researchers found that “students consider learning and studying to be a personal activity and therefore the decision about which tools to use for learning and studying is unaffected by the opinions of friends.”

The scholars conclude:

This study demonstrates that two factors underpin students’ intention to resist giving up paper textbooks: Facilitates Study Processes and Permanence. The paper textbook is perceived as a critical tool in facilitating students’ learning and study processes. The fluid and dynamic nature of digital content compared to the more consistent and predictable nature of information on paper appears to be a barrier to the acquisition of knowledge for the purpose of assessment. Students perceive paper textbooks as the best format for extended reading and studying and for locating information. Students believe that they learn more when studying from paper textbooks. Moreover, paper textbooks allow students to manage content in whatever way they wish to study the material. …

Students’ reaction to the relative impermanence of electronic content is to continue to resist giving up the paper textbooks. Paper textbooks permit students to have unlimited access to information at any time during a course as well as after the course ends. Moreover, these students have come of age during a time where large organizations increasingly control the students’ access to online content. In the case of paper textbooks, content is controlled by the student and not by publishers or IT developers who continuously make changes to computer hardware or software in order to restrict access to the content.

What’s most revealing about this study is that, like earlier research, it suggests that students’ preference for printed textbooks reflects the real pedagogical advantages they experience in using the format: fewer distractions, deeper engagement, better comprehension and retention, and greater flexibility to accommodating idiosyncratic study habits. Electronic textbooks will certainly get better, and will certainly have advantages of their own, but they won’t replicate the particular advantages inherent to the tangible form of the printed book.

Photo from Univers beeldbank.

27 thoughts on “Students to e-textbooks: no thanks

  1. Gordon Divitt

    Might I suggest ebooks have not yet evolved to the point of usefulness (in this context) and what you are seeing are typical of transitional technology

    The Internet was pretty restrictive until user friendly browsers came along. Their analog in study situations seems still pending

  2. Nick Post author

    I think it’s fair to say that some of the disadvantages of electronic texts will be ameliorated by future advances, but I don’t think it’s true that all of them will be ameliorated. The research shows that some the greatest experiential advantages of print, for study and comprehension, lie in the tangibility of paper pages and the haptic experience of navigating them and creating mental images of them. Not all of that can be replicated by digital images on screens. There is also the issue of the intensity of distraction on a networked computer device as opposed to a simple book. Again, the difference seems largely inherent to the media.

  3. Brad

    I propose an app that encourages deep reading and study. A few taps and you’re totally locked out of your device for an agreed to amount of time.

  4. Martin C.

    Hi Nick, first time here.
    I totally agree on your comment that “the greatest experiential advantages of print, for study and comprehension, lie in the tangibility of paper pages and the haptic experience of navigating them and creating mental images of them. Not all of that can be replicated by digital images on screens. There is also the issue of the intensity of distraction on a networked computer device as opposed to a simple book. Again, the difference seems largely inherent to the media.”

    The experience of reading a ‘true’ book and swipe over it’s pages is not -and will never be- similar to swiping an ebook.
    I love to use a tablet for bedtime or for browsing news , short articles and even read books but without doubt it will never replace a study book. Nonetheless a tablet or e-book may be the +perfect+ companion to consume other type of information that a printed book can’t bring: learning videos.

  5. shagggz

    @Brad: The app already exists and is called Freedom ( which is quite the twisted bit of Orwellianism. There is nothing freeing by removing functionality, especially if you’re adding on even more functionality to do so. The option already exists and is called turning off your wi-fi connection, going into do no disturb or airplane mode, or not signing in to whatever distracting apps in question.

    The point about print media facilitating memorization due to its ability to stimulate our brain’s association of place with memory is a fair one, though I don’t think this is an insuperable hurdle for digital media. I’m sure there are ways to simulate, through skeuomorphism or otherwise, one’s place in a book. The software now available is frankly garbage and we haven’t even begun to realize its potential. Imagine being able to add little graffiti or other margin notes of actual worth while being able to see same of every other student who has ever gone through the book, or those from your current class, etc. as opposed to merely being stuck with the margin notes of the previous owner, if that. Imagine being able to see in real time who is having trouble in what subject matter, perhaps this leads to students getting together to form study groups, meatspace or otherwise. Imagine the huge benefit this could give the shy or socially awkward students who would never had that opportunity otherwise.

    Imagine the publishing-education complex being stripped of their excuse to perfunctorily publish a new edition every year with a couple pages change just to justify the cost of a new book, the acres of dendritic flesh spared an unnecessary chainsawing, the aching joints spared from having to lug around paper bricks on their backs all day.

    The issue of there being too much power in hands of the software owners is a valid one, but says more about the cancer of IP maximalism on our society than digital learning tools themselves.

  6. Dennis

    I know that I like being able to have physical textbook for the obvious reasons of eyestrain, and because they’re much easier to mark up, but I also like that they retain some value afterwards. At my school, the license for electronic textbooks lasts only for the semester in which it is needed and afterwards, it is no longer good, unless you retake the class, in which case they will offer you a renewal code for free or at a much lower rate. When you buy a tangible textbook though, you can actually resell that textbook afterwards, and receive at least a portion of your original investment back, and in some cases when you manage to buy the book used, even break even or in rare cases, make a profit off the book. It would take quite a few changes for me to want to make the change completely.

  7. Ajolie

    The ideal, for now, is to have both paper and electronic. Read and immerse on paper. But dig deeper, search and find things and relationships using the power of technology. For this reason, I don’t know why amazon doesn’t bundle both. Why should anyone have to pay full price for both? Lots of programmers do this.

    In the future, each page in a physical book will be electronic. We can flip each physical page. Put phsical post its on pages. Or write electronic notes and record thoughts or relate it to a web page or a discussion with peers. That’s when paper will be replaced.

  8. euromix

    I think E-book are doomed because of business model & legal issues.
    We will never own an E-book as a paper book. We will never own the E-book reader either. We can own a Book, but we can only consume E-book.
    True learning is a process very opposite as consuming. Consuming is very passiv, learning is about taking ownership, being active. We most probably have the technology to make ebook much like real books, not no company is going to develop nor sell such device.

  9. Doug Holton

    Part of the issue may be because, as the Department of Justice found, publishers colluded to keep e-book prices high. Also there are all the DRM restrictions limiting the use and sharing of e-books. Also there has not been a great deal innovation to take advantage of the e-book medium yet. Even though EPUB 3 is basically just a wrapper for HTML5, most have not taken advantage of any of its interactive features such as animations and built-in quizzes:

    Few schools require students to have and use their own computing devices for courses, and many students choose not to even buy the regular textbooks for a course, as they are so expensive and sometimes not that useful or that needed for learning in a course.

    The pedagogical features of traditional books that you claim are not that effective – being able to highlight, re-read, and summarize have been shown to not be effective:

    Books, like lectures and videos, are a passive learning method, whereas active learning methods have been shown to more than double learning and retention See a report last year from the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology titled “Engage to Excel”:

  10. John blue

    There is still the opportunity to study the performance (grades) and knowledge retention of each of the media. There may be a preference for paper but which helps student grades and longer term knowledge use?

  11. J stark

    I think, in a perfect world, there could be a balance of “lifestyle disciplines ” that falls somewhere between the U.S. and North Korea ….

  12. Forrest Higgs

    I’m old. I wrote my first program in FORTRAN II at university in 1965. That said, I’m still economically active in high tech.

    When electronic texts began to emerge fifteen years ago, I found myself not much impressed. Since I already sat in front of a screen for most of my working day, the prospect of being forced to continue to sit in front of it whenever I wanted to read something was not at all attractive.

    A couple of years ago, however, I acquired and Android powered tablet. It completely changed my reading habits. Although I can do email, text and social network on the tablet, I find that I only ever turn on the wifi when I want to download a new book or manuscript. I have a tablet with roughly the dimensions of a short book onto which I can load not only any book in any reader format, but which can also display with backlighting a variety of electronic document formats, the most compelling being PDF. Before the Android notebook I found myself printing out PDFs, some running to several hundred pages. Now I just load them on the notebook.

    I’ve never looked back. These days I find that I am buying electronic copies of books I already own simply for the convenience. The paper copies are mouldering in crates in the attic. I’ve found that I have little sentimental attachment to the walls of bookshelves which used to cover the walls of my home and lab.

  13. James Blunt

    You write an article on why students aren’t attracted to ebooks without even mentioning Digital Restrictions Management (DRM)?!?
    Why anyone would want a book that can’t be transferred to other devices or shared with friends, is beyond me.

  14. Philip Dorrell

    Two words: Laser Printers!

    Even better, colour laser printers with double-sided printing! (And personally, I recommend size 26 staples, and staple about 10-20 pages at a time into readable chunks of text that you can easily read anywhere.)

    If your electronic content reads good when printed out on A4 paper, students can have their cake and eat it. They can even get sticky crumbs all over the print-out without worrying that it reduces the resale value of an expensive textbook.

  15. Janie

    My own experience using digital textbooks taught me more about literacy than I ever knew: Print books provide an amazing number of contextual clues for comprehension, pacing, hierarchy of concepts, and interaction.

    Ebooks cannot offer what physical textbooks provide.

  16. montymiff

    Coincidentally a few hours ago I was sitting in a hospital examing room reading the book “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr, 2010, pub. w.w.Norton &Co. Generally it is about neuroplasticity of the brain and how external factors change human thought processes now and throughout history.
    Halfway through in the chapter ‘A Medium of the Most General Nature’ (pp 89-92) he discusses the advantages of e-books ( interactivity, hyperlinks, searchability, multimedia) which propel the reader toward their big disadvantage: distractability. He feels that the printed page leads to a deeper, more focused thought process while the e-book experience “influences the degree of attention…and the depth of our immersion” in the work. He also contends that this format creates,broad, shallow reading experiences. Is it possible that students have intuitively realized that they will study moremeffectively from a Book?
    I’m eager to complete The Shallows, by the way. And if my incomplete reading has caused a misreprentation, I apologize to Mr. Carr in advance.

    I am also reminded of the results of a small experiment done by a grad student recently which involved presenting subjects with prosaic items, electricity bills being one type, in paper and e-format. A significant number of subjects missed errors when viewing the bill on screen but caught the errors when viewing them on paper. I’d like to see more research like this to see if this result was an anomaly or not.

  17. Nothere

    As someone who just graduated, eBooks had there good points and bad.

    Good points, during open book tests, the search feature was really handy.

    One bad point as I saw it. Most monitors operate at 60Hz, and so do overhead florescent lighting, this causes eye strain which can hamper prolong studying (ADD for the eyes). A book is softer to read and study from when longevity counts.

  18. RussellUresti

    I much preferred eBooks for my courses. When trying to recall a specific piece of information I read, the search was much faster. The only issue was that my school was locked into dealing through a specific provider, so I had to use their platform and not my own.

    I’m actually wondering if this is something that happened to the users in this study. Since it was just one school, and not a multitude of schools, opinions (and, thus, results) could be thrown off due to restrictive DRM, or the students being forced into particular hardware/software (for example, I couldn’t use my eReader for my college eBooks, I had to use their software platform, so the books were only ever on my desktop computer and not my actual eReader).

    The study specifically cites the negatives of the eBooks as difficulty in highlighting and poor search functionality – both of which could be the result of a sub-par eBook ecosystem rather than any issue with digital books.

    The permanence issue, where the eBooks became inaccessible to the students once the course ended, is actually an unforgivable sin. I still have access to my eBooks and I graduated. Removing the material from the student’s account is, in my mind, straight theft. This is certainly platform specific – as any books bought through Amazon or BN or iBooks would still be on the student’s device.

    Based on what I’m seeing in the study, I’m going to guess that the students did not have a mobile device of their eBooks (as part of their complaints were that the books were not accessible without the Internet and without a computer). It looks like they were forced to use a computer, and not an eReader, which, I agree, would be a huge negative – but again, this is a negative on the ecosystem for these students and does not actually test physical book vs eBook preference.

    But this is all just a stepping stone anyways. If you’re saying that eBooks are a complete failure because the ones that are available RIGHT NOW aren’t good enough, then I believe you’re being very short-sighted. And I completely disagree with your assessment that there are inherit advantages of physical books over eBooks (in terms of comprehension, flexibility, and engagement). It’s a new technology which has just started to be made available for students (not all course books are even available in eBook format yet).

    Plus, these students didn’t grow up using eBooks and eReaders from early development stages – they used physical books and, as all humans, will still be resistent to change. Show me the results of this survey 20 years from now, when students have been using digital material throughout their early educational experiences, and we’ll see if the results are the same.

  19. Gary

    Janie has a great comment. It is likely that younger people choose print exactly because they understand the attributes of screen reading and connected learning and so they discern the other attributes and learning maneuvers of print.

  20. Nicole

    Personally, I am open to buying e-textbooks, but they often don’t make economic sense to buy. Buying a cheap used physical copy and selling it at the end of the semester is generally cheaper than buying an e-version. If e-books can find their way into a used marketplace, perhaps then students will have incentives to buy them instead.

  21. JT

    A friend and his wife who homeschool their children, told me that in their research they found studies that showed up to something like 65% of the learning was associated with handling the textbook, turning the pages, etc., and the eye-hand motor activity.

  22. Mark

    I think the real issue here is that the kids won’t have any reason to hang out at the locker. :) No, I think there is something to having the study materials in hand. It makes you commit to the task.

  23. Candace Broughton

    I am writing from a middle- high school setting where many textbooks, esp. Social Studies, are truly enormous in size and weight. No wonder kids don’t want to use them. They are back-breakers! Others have offered useful alternatives here, but as a rural and poor area, we are still living in the digital divide, with minimal library access, to say nothing of ebook readers,
    I believe these are other issues we must address first.

  24. john blue

    Just an interesting observation: Jerry Pournelle & Larry Niven, in their science fiction book “The Mote in God’s Eye”, published in 1974, detailed the use of personal handheld computers for all manner of information use. One of the use behaviors in the story was how to tap into large knowledge (Wikipedia like) on a network, and mixed it with local knowledge (Evernote too like), and share it with others (Tumblr, G+ like for public, or TeamBox or Basecamp like for private use).

    The change that is occurring today is one from owning books and building libraries to one of building up resources of connected data=> to be transformed in to usable information to make decisions and easily reference.

Comments are closed.