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. kochero

    I am the biggest supporter on e-books. I didn’t even read printed books before I got my Nook. This is due to the fact that I can’t picture an old & a beautiful tree being chopped up so that I can fill my appetite for knowledge. E-books might not be the best way to read, but as someone who can think for himself, I really think we should all root for a paperless future.

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