Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner: Electronic Textbooks or Paper Textbooks: What Are Students Reading? Or Are They Reading at All?

June 1, 2013
Instructional Communication

There is a growing movement by students, parents, and professors protesting the high price of traditional paper textbooks and denouncing the weight and strain of carrying textbooks. According to a United States Government report, textbook prices have increased at over twice the rate of inflation in the last couple of decades. According to another report, the average student spends between $700 and $1,000 per year on textbooks while the cost of e-textbooks can be as much as 50% lower than paper textbooks. This is an important consideration for all teachers, especially basic communication course instructors at universities where all students are require to take an oral communication general education course. 

According to the Oxford dictionary, an electronic book or e-book is “an electronic version of a printed book that can be read on a computer or handheld device designed specifically for this purpose.” An e-textbook is defined as an e-book used for instructional or educational purposes and often includes features such as bookmarking, searching, highlighting, and note-taking as well as built-in dictionaries and pronunciation guides, embedded video-clips, embedded hyperlinks, and animated graphics.

E-textbooks have moved from occasional usage to a mainstream technology on college campuses. According to the Association of American Publishers, sales of e-books hit over $90 million; this is up over 200% when compared to the same month the previous year. When the cost of textbooks and the availability of formats are considered, the use of an e-textbook in the classroom may be the reasonable choice. 

Our study was designed to investigate the use of an e-textbook versus a paper textbook used in basic communication classes and to discover any impact of textbook reading on student performance in the course. The ultimate goal was to help instructors make decisions about adopting e-textbooks for college courses, as well as help them understand the challenges students may face in reading e-textbooks and paper textbooks.

Our study showed that students on average do not often read the course e-textbook and only occasionally read the paper textbook. They said it was difficult to read the e-textbook because (1) it was inconvenient; (2) they did not always have computer access for reading; (3) reading at the computer strained their eyes; and (4) it was hard to highlight or take notes.  In addition, they said they learned the most from attending class and listening to the instructor, giving speeches in class, doing assigned homework, practicing their speeches, and listening to the other students’ speeches. 

Interestingly, about 40% of students indicated learning from the e-textbook, even though they did not read it on a weekly basis and listed several difficulties with reading the e-textbook. Only 17% of students said they were willing to pay $130 for the course paper textbook, while 82% of the students said they were willing to pay $48 for the course e-textbook. We found that students who received A’s indicated more comfort in accessing the e-textbook online than those who earned B’s. However, we found students’ grade did not differ based on perceived regularity of reading the e-textbook or paper textbook. 

It appears e-textbooks are not at the place where students are embracing them. They prefer the lower cost of e-textbooks, but do not appreciate the challenges of e-textbook reading. They miss the conveniences of the paper textbooks and they do not like having to read the e-textbook at their computers or laptops. It is not surprising that when the two formats are compared, four times the number of students said they learned the most from reading the paper textbook compared to the e-textbook. Almost 80% of the students rarely or never read the e-textbook during most weeks, while 25% rarely or never read the paper textbook during most weeks.

One of the issues that arose out of this study is how to motivate students to read textbooks in general. Anecdotal evidence from textbook sellers suggests that at least 20% of students skip buying textbooks. They think they can “get by” without the textbook, but that is not to their learning advantage. Instructors need to emphasize textbook reading from the beginning of the course and could require students to look at charts, boxes, summaries, or end-of-chapter questions in order to participate in class.

When textbook readings are assigned, instructors need to explain the relevance of the readings and how it is important for success in the class. Teachers who want to motivate students to read their textbooks could use strategies to hold students accountable for reading, such as assigning homework or quizzes. They could assign timely written exercises collected at the beginning of class or oral presentations covering the same material. E-textbooks, with their new technological tools, can foster journaling, reflections on readings, or quiz-taking by making these features more assessable to students at a click of a finger. 

Instructors need to move to the place where student materials are assessable, helpful, and affordable. It seems that students want more help and greater efficiency in studying—they want to absorb more material in the least amount of time or effort expended. At present the e-textbooks are attractive to students because they are less expensive. However, students do not want to spend hours reading at their computers or laptops. It may be that when electronic textbooks become more available and attainable through portable e-readers and other electronic devices, students will favor them over paper textbooks. Also, there may be an adjustment time for students to get used to reading with technology— beyond using it for Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.— as well as an adjustment time for teachers to use the e-textbooks as an effective teaching tool. Students will be more likely to adopt e-textbooks when the e-formats offer the amenities of paper textbooks and students have the electronic devices to make best use of them. For now, we should consider the students and their preferences, as well as options available, in the adoption of electronic textbooks.

About the author (s)

Karen Kangas Dwyer

University of Nebraska

Robert T. Reilly Diamond Professor

Marlina Marie Davidson

University of Nebraska