Do Students Really Prefer Print Textbooks?

Disclaimer: I am an eTextbook author and have championed the move to digital textbook publishing.

A recent survey was conducted by the National Association of College Stores (NACS) OnCampus Research division to “cut through the speculation” about “how much students are accessing e-books and on what devices.”  The mainstream media focused on the fact that three quarters of those surveyed indicated that they preferred print books. Preference for print depends on a variety of economic and usability factors. The economics of eBook/eReader is real issue in adoption, but what are the device features and user experience that affects student preference? The survey summary report leaves several unresolved issues leading to questionable interpretations of student preference.

Factors influencing reading and learning experience.

As an educator, I take into account the reading and learning experience when choosing an eBook or print book for my course. A poor reading experience is likely to result in poor learning. The reading experience entails the environmental factors influencing how the user interacts with the book and its content. The learning experience is affected by the pedagogical approach to the content.  The reading experience for digital books also depends on the device used for viewing and the format the book is rendered in. Though eBooks are accessible on small mobile devices like the iPhone, they do not necessarily provide the best eTextbook user experience.

The textbook learning experience goes beyond topical content and writing style. It includes structural elements (e.g., detailed contents, index, focus boxes, special formatting for key terms and concepts) and availability of student self-assessment features. Though print textbooks posses these features, the usability can be enhanced in a digital environment.

Choosing the right physical and in the case of a eBook, digital format is nearly as important as the content itself. The reading and learning experience of eBooks can be affected by their format. eBooks appropriate for college study exist over a spectrum of possibilities. At one end are trade eBooks such as a novel used in a literature course, which may be a pdf file or a slightly more feature-rich (e.g., highlighting, embedded note taking), but a still limited ePub. At the other end is a fully interactive eTexbook built on a propriety publisher interface or application with embedded assessments, access to glossaries, note taking, content sharing, etc.  Kindle books are an example of the former while eBooks created for the Kno or as an app for the iPad is an example of the latter.

Survey results:  eBook and Device Preference

According to the NACS report over 600 students participated in the survey, with the “typical respondent” being an upper class female college student between 18 to 24 years old. Of those surveyed, only 13% had bought an eBook within the last three months. Of those who had bought an eBook, two-thirds bought an electronic / digital textbook for a course and one third specifically for leisure reading.  Nearly three quarters indicated that if given choice, “print textbooks would be their top option.” If only 13% had purchased an eBook in the last three months, this means that 87% had not, and possibly never had the opportunity to own one.

Students were asked about their ebook reading experience compared to a print book. Though the survey indicates the type of device used to read their eBook, e.g., desktop, Netbook, smartphone, tablet, it does not indicate if all respondents had access to the same technology for comparison. The survey reported that “one-third” (the report’s underlining emphasis) of the respondents who had read an eBook felt the experience was somewhat to much better than a print book, 25% were neutral and 29% not as good as a print book.  So, for those who have bought an eBook, only 29% (my emphasis) felt it wasn’t as good an experience as a print book. More importantly, combining those that preferred e-books with those with neutral opinions, nearly 60% would have no problem using them for a course. Of those that preferred print, over half indicated that they “simply preferred print”. As noted above, only 13% had bought and eBook (of what format we don’t know). How would one know if they preferred print if they never had used one? One must draw the conclusion that for those who have had experience with both digital and print, e-books meet or exceed their needs when compared to print books.

There is no presentation of book preference by device use,e.g. those who preferred print over digital if using an iPhone, tablet eReader, or desktop. This information might be useful as the eBook reading experience is likely affected by device features, e.g.,  form factor, mobility, screen size, weight, availability of color. If the only exposure to an eBook has been on a black and white Kindle screen, how could they compare that to an interactive textbook created as an app for the iPad or the very least, one delivered as a full-color, media enabled ePub.

Survey results: Concerns about eBooks

The headline that came out of the report was the if the choice was entirely up to them, 74% would prefer print. The survey reported that cost was the top factor that keeps students considering a digital textbook over print, but the report provided to me does not indicate the percentage. There is no doubt that the price of books, whether print or digital, is an issue for cash-strapped students. Interestingly the report states that  “Additional factors that respondents believe are major issues when considering digital is the inability to sell back the book …” However earlier in the report only 7% of those who prefer print indicated that this was an issue with not preferring digital. But if cost was not an issue, would the response be the same?

Of those who preferred print, over half did so because the simply “preferred print to digital”. Why is it that some simply like a printed book, is it the feel, the portability, device requirement? Several respondents were concerned about not being able to highlight text, embed notes on  page, or lose annotations if the e-Book was erased (which by the way, is equivalent to losing a print book). I have to wonder if all the respondents have at least seen an ePub formatted textbook. Most eBooks, especially textbooks from major publishers like Pearson, McGraw Hill, John Wiley have these features. Would those surveyed answer the same way if they had previous experience with an eTextbook with these features?

Interpreting Preference

To understand student preference for one textbook format over another, more effective comparisons and survey questions need to be asked. For instance, what was the satisfaction level of reading on a tablet versus print, or reading on a laptop versus reading on a tablet. What device did those who didn’t like the experience of reading a digital textbook use? What kind of eBook format was bought? Which eBook file formats did students have experience with? A better understanding of preference for print versus digital may be uncovered if survey respondents had the opportunity to compare a static printed textbook to a dynamic, multimedia enriched textbook.  It might be helpful to break out survey preference data by book type, textbook or trade book. Trade eBooks used in a literature course may not require the same digital features that a science textbook does.

Final thoughts

The survey provides a nice snap shot of current purchase and use of eBook and eReaders by students. Discerning student preference for print over digital books from this particular survey is problematic in my opinion. To adequately address preference, survey respondents need access to a variety of eTextbook formats and devices to compare. A simple analogy is a “taste test” where all make side-by-side comparison to decide on preference.  Unless this is done, it’s “speculation” to draw conclusions about student preference from surveys like this.

References for this post:

Electronic Book and e-Reader Device Report. National Association of College Stores October, 2010. Last visited 11/24/2010

About Michael Ritter PhD
Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, science textbook author, educational technology blogger, podcaster, and freelance media consultant.

3 Responses to Do Students Really Prefer Print Textbooks?

  1. Marco Taboga says:

    Very interesting post. Thank you. The insights from this survey are really food for thought for those in charge of writing and designing digital textbooks. I am writing a digital textbook on statistics myself and I think that the most challenging aspect of it is thinking how digital media can be exploited to offer a better learning experience than paper textbooks. I think there is still a long way to go, but once the enormous potential of digital media will have been exploited, digital textbooks will provide a better learning experience.

  2. Diane Stauffer says:

    I am an avid reader and writer. At one time I was considered an excellent student, being one who gave a speech at my graduation.

    There is no comparision to reading and writing in print vs. screen. They are almost 2 totally different things.

    For any substantial intellectual retention, thinking, emotional and spiritual qualities, print is it! Screens are good for quick fixes, certain information, and esoteric tidbits such as, let’s say, finding abandoned amusement parks in Rhode Island.

    Writing on screen can be fun. It is quick and addictive. I also find myself being sloppy, disengaged, and not as satisfied with my work. Are these the qualities we want to cultivate in our future students?

    The majority of the students in my daughter’s class are from upscale families. They have every techno gadget possible and use them ad nauseum. Still, it was interesting to see that the majority of them rebelled when one science teacher tried to do tests online. They preferred paper.

    Maybe it cannot yet be scientifically proven, but they already sense instinctively that there is something flawed with online learning. There is the undisputed fact that being human and evolving into an advanced human being is not compatible with doing everything on a screen.

    I expect those trying to “prove” that these students do not know what they are talking about have their own hidden agendas that are less than integral.

  3. Thanks for your opinion Diane. Just a few reactions about your post. Your experience with writing on screen is just that, your opinion and your experience, many more have excellent experiences writing “on screen” and I dare say most millennial students, the target of the survey by in large, write on screen very well.

    There is a huge body of scholarly work in education that has shown online learning to be equal to or better than face-to-face learning in a variety of disciplines and educational settings.

    There is no “hidden agenda” here, if one simply reads the results of the survey it becomes obvious that the survey is flawed. If there is a “hidden agenda” it could just as well be with those who contracted for the survey, university textbook stores that depend on the sale of print books.

    I could go on but again, you are simply expressing your opinion, thanks for doing that!

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