The Digital Generation Doesn't Want Digital Textbooks

By Eric Garneau


A Hesitant Study Body

According to data released in 2010 by Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), 75% of students surveyed said they preferred print textbooks to e-books or similar options, while only 47% said they'd be comfortable trying out the digital format. That may sound surprising given that college students are so electronically connected in other areas of their lives. What gives them pause?

Check numerous sources around the Web and you'll find the same student complaints: digital textbooks don't let you take notes in the margins. You can't turn pages quickly enough. You can't resell them for money at the end of a semester. Sometimes they expire after a certain period of use (often a year). If you're viewing them on a Web browser and have a bad Internet connection, pages can take forever to load. When taken together, these reasons prevent a large number of college students from totally embracing the e-textbook phenomenon.

Objections Answered

But should they? It's not that student objections to e-books are invalid, it's just that once you get over the initial shock of not having a physical textbook in your hands, a lot of the problems seem to melt away. Bookseller Barnes & Noble's executive vice president for textbooks and digital education seems to correlate that fact in an interview with The New York Times: 'the real hurdle is getting (students) to try it.'

Let's look at the common objections to e-books one-by-one. I think we'll find that many of them aren't all that problematic, and some are essentially non-issues.

  • You can't take notes in the margins: This could indeed provide a problem for students who like to make textbooks their own by adding helpful factoids. Fortunately, it's a problem that's starting to disappear. Several popular e-textbook platforms, such as Inkling and even Follet's CafeScribe, allow for digital note-taking on book 'pages;' some even facilitate sharing those notes through social networking sites. Though it's taken some time for digital books to catch on to this convenience, the ease of disseminating your digital notes might make pencil markings scrawled in textbook margins seem positively barbaric.
  • You can't resell them for money: While this is true, it ignores the fact that digital textbooks are typically around 40%-50% cheaper than their in-print alternatives (according to Student PIRGs). And that's not even counting open textbooks like those available at FlatWorldKnowledge, which are totally free to students who want to view them on a Web browser or tablet PC. When you're saving money (or not spending any), there's not much of an imperative to get money back.
  • Digital books can expire: This seems like a reasonable objection, since many digital textbooks are valid only for a 12-month period; why shouldn't students permanently own what they pay for (even at a discount)? This is an area where textbook publishers seem to conspire to hold on to as much money as they can, and as e-textbooks become more accepted in the coming years, perhaps this will start to change. For some e-textbook platforms, it already has; books purchased through the aforementioned CafeScribe, for instance, don't ever expire. Of course, if you opt to rent your digital textbooks instead of buying them, you can't really complain about their expiration.
  • Pages can take too long to load: Students may or may not have this problem depending on if they choose to access e-books through an Internet browser or download them onto their personal devices. Here, it seems like the best way to handle things is to know your environment: if your school has a pretty solid wi-fi network, you might be able to get away with reading your books online. If you tend to study in places with connectivity issues, you might have to pony up some extra cash/hard drive space and download them yourself. Really, having the books ready to go and not dependent on an Internet connection seems like the safer bet, but if you've got good connections everywhere you go, you could risk it.

Change is Coming

A few months ago, conducted its own survey on textbook usage, which included questions on digital books. Though the survey came only a year after Student PIRGs', we found some significant differences in results. Of those students who responded (only individuals enrolled in for-credit classes at postsecondary institutions), 18% said they haven't used digital textbooks when they had the option, and 22% said they wouldn't use them if they could. Meanwhile, 17% said they had used digital textbooks when available. By far the largest amount of our survey respondents - 42% - answered that they would use digital textbooks if they could, but have never been given the chance to do so.

Of course there are mitigating factors that might explain the differences between our results and Student PIRGs', like the fact that groups of students who take surveys on Facebook are perhaps more apt to embrace digital textbooks in the first place. But it's also possible that in that year between surveys, student populations across the country have become more willing to welcome the digital revolution. That's not too surprising; most new technology has a slow burn when it's introduced and then generally becomes more commonplace (how many more people have iPhones now than when they were first launched?). As digital textbooks become more student-friendly and students become more open to the idea behind them, it seems we might see their popularity rise even higher.

Should your professor be allowed to assign his own textbook in class?

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