Do Students Prefer E-textbooks to Paper Textbooks?


As the educational community turns more toward digital content for instruction, publishers have begun to create e-textbooks instead of, or as a supplement to traditional paper textbooks.

At first glance, e-textbooks seem to be the way of the future, offering significant advantages over paper textbooks:

  • E-textbooks are easy to transport, lessening the heavy weight of backpacks and saving shelf space.
  • Purchasing a digital textbook is often cheaper than buying a printed copy.
  • Students can search through the text easily, with just a few clicks.
  • Some e-textbooks have added functionality for bookmarking, highlighting, and adding notes.
  • Digital textbooks can include multimedia content such as videos and sounds that can be played directly within the textbook.

Surprisingly, however, two studies carried out in 2012 revealed that many students actually prefer using paper textbooks rather than digital textbooks for studying purposes.

While many e-textbooks allow for highlighting, bookmarking, and annotating, students find that these study habits are more effective when used in paper textbooks. In a paper textbook, notes are written directly on the page or on a post-it note which jumps out and grabs their attention, whereas e-textbooks often require that the student remembers to check for notes on each page.

Furthermore, students appreciate that they can re-sell paper copies of their textbooks after the course is over; this outweighs the benefits of purchasing the e-textbook at an lower cost from the outset.

Additional reasons cited for why paper textbooks are considered superior include:

  • While using e-textbooks, students tend to feel distracted and tempted to surf the web or check their email and Facebook accounts.
  • Many students find that studying from digital textbooks causes eye fatigue and cannot be sustained for long periods of time.
  • When students read e-textbooks, they tend to skim the content and “dip in and out,” whereas when they read printed textbooks, they read in a more comprehensive and linear fashion.
  • Paper textbooks can be kept for future reference even after the course is finished, whereas many e-textbooks expire or prohibit access after the course is finished.
  • E-textbooks are often incompatible with some types of devices and cannot be easily transferred from one device to another.
  • Students can study from paper textbooks without the need to access electronic devices. This is particularly useful in situations where the internet is not available or electronic devices have crashed or run out of power.

Are e-textbooks truly the way of the future? Will they gradually replace paper textbooks over the course of the next decade, or will paper textbooks remain as a long-standing tradition for years to come? Only time will tell.


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