Print vs. Electronic Textbook: What should faculty recommend to their students?

I’m often asked by instructors about students’ attitudes towards digital textbooks.  Many of the print textbooks used in a course are available in electronic format for either purchase or rental and offer attractive reasons for use such as cost, convenience and enhanced functionality.     Yet, anecdotally, instructors report mixed results on student satisfaction with using e-textbooks.  What I hear from our instructors is very similar to what I’ve read in the library science and higher education literature. 

Students like the option of purchasing a required textbook in either print or electronic format, but left to decide on their own, many  still select the print textbook.  However, this decision can be swayed if the instructor shows the class the e-textbook on an electronic device.   This includes the instructor recommending, but not endorsing, sites where the e-textbook can be purchased, demonstrating popular web-based functionalities of the e-reader, and letting students know a print copy is available at the library should they need it.   (Make sure to communicate with your library liaison should you need a print copy of the textbook available in the Lister Hill Library Schools Collection).

To buy or to rent?  Many of the e-textbook web sites offer the ability to purchase chapters or rent an entire work for a prescribed amount of time.   This benefits both instructor and student if only a portion of the textbook is being assigned or the book is for a special topics course.  Many instructors seem reluctant to lengthen their required reading lists, but the flexibility in being able to rent or purchase select portions of a textbook allows for a cost-conscious approach for students.  Where the rental model may not be ideal is for the health sciences student that uses their fundamental textbooks later for preparing for licensing exams or as reference during residency.  

What students generally dislike about e-textbooks is the perceived monotony of reading on an electronic device and poor functionality of the e-reader.  Both will strongly dictate whether the student will abandon the digital book for the print copy.   Students who have no choice but to acquire the e-textbook generally report less satisfaction with the course.  This is why selecting a textbook that is available for purchase in both print and electronic format is so important. 

Recent studies, however,  show students are generally satisfied with e-textbooks and that overall satisfaction and use is increasing.  I believe the reason for the increase in satisfaction is two-fold.   First, electronic devices and e-readers are improving to support content distribution and secondly, instructors are becoming savvier in using technology in the e-learning environment.   By no means are digital textbooks better than their print counterpart.  Most e-textbooks still lack value-added, interactive features, such as image manipulation, short videos, and the ability to add customized content and this is where most instructors still voice their frustration.

Liz Lorbeer, Associate Director for Content Management


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  1. […] from Tech Lister, March 21st 2012, with permission from Liz […]

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