Trying to balance the ed with the tech

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The business of textbooks or why do students prefer print?

Students prefer print.

Julie K. Bartley, an associate professor of geology and chair of the geology department at Gustavus Adolphus College, hears the sentiment from her undergraduates. “Our students don’t really want to have e-books,” Ms. Bartley says.  Chronicle of Higher Ed

I hear this a lot, with some (industry) research suggesting that 75% of students prefer print over electronic textbooks. A 2010 study from Woody et al (E-books or textbooks Students prefer textbooks) supports the notion that students prefer print to electronic.

It is becoming quite clear that, despite the ubiquity of computers and interactive technology in their lives, students preferred textbooks over e-books for learning

But why is that? Why do students seem to prefer printed textbooks to electronic ones? Says Ms. Bartley:

“What I hear from them a lot of times is that they feel some sort of comfort in being able to hold the thing in their hands.” Chronicle of Higher Ed


Based on these results, we argue that at this time the medium itself may not be as comfortable as a textbook experience for readers (Woody et al)

I don’t want to minimize the tactile experience of reading a physical book, and I do acknowledge that there are some pedagogical qualities of a physical book things that are easier to do in print than electronic, like flip back and forth quickly between pages to help connect concepts located at different parts of the book. But I sometimes think this reason is given far too much importance when we examine student format preferences and we are missing out on an equal, if not more, important factor biasing student format preference.


Most of the studies that have looked at student textbook format preferences have compared a publishers resource to itself; a publishers printed textbook versus the same publishers electronic offering. And when you look at the economics behind this choice, it’s easy to see why students might pick print over electronic. As Kent Anderson’s points out, from a student perspective, the economics of e-text vs print just does not make sense when it comes to publishers textbooks.

For the vast majority of students, print textbooks are economically superior to e-books simply because there’s a robust used book market for expensive print textbooks. Buy them new, sell them back. Want them cheaper? Buy them used. The market is much more favorable and robust.

As an example, would I buy a $52 e-book when I can buy a $115 print book that has, as its low offer, a used price of $84? With print, I can essentially “rent” a textbook for a semester for $31, an economic edge of $21 over the e-book — and with no upfront cost of an e-reader.

In other words, it is cheaper for a student to buy a textbook and sell that used textbook to recoup costs. There is a market for used textbooks. There is no market for a used e-text version.

Not that you could sell your e-text version even if there was a market because students don’t actually own the e version of the publishers textbook. The publishers don’t “sell” e-texts – they lease access to them, usually for 180 days. Even if a student wants to keep the textbook, they cannot. After 4-6 months, they lose access to the e-textbook.

But yet this fall, students will feel an even stronger push from publishers to choose e-text over print even though they are not buying them.Why would publishers continue to push formats that students don’t want?

Simply put – to undercut the used textbook market. Publishers don’t make money from the sale of used textbooks, so they are eager to see the print market dry up and for students to adopt e-text. So there is an economic incentive for publishers to kill off physical textbooks and push e-texts on students, who are balking at the terms they are offering and rejecting their expensive e-text. Plus, e-text versions make collecting data about students use of the textbooks possible, something they can’t do with print versions of the textbook. And there is gold in that there data.

Yet, offer a free and open text and then it is a vastly different story – students will choose the free and open electronic version of a textbook over low cost printed version.

Lindshield & Adhikari created an electronic textbook (they called it a flexbook) for a Human Nutrition course and found that, even though low cost print on demand versions of the book were available, students (whether on campus or online) overwhelmingly chose the electronic version.

(n = 93)
(n = 102)
Primary way of using the flexbook
   Google Docs version shared to Gmail or K-State Google account
23 (24.7%)
20 (19.6%)
   Web version (accessed through link)
24 (25.8%)
14 (13.7%)*
   PDF (downloaded)
43 (46.2%)
51 (50.0%)
   Hard copy (self-printed or purchased from vendor)
3 (3.2%)
17 (16.7%)**
Second most common way of using the flexbook
   Google Docs version shared to Gmail or K-State Google account
13 (14.0%)
20 (19.6%)
   Web version (accessed through link)
23 (24.7%)
13 (12.7%)*
   PDF (downloaded)
21 (22.6%)
20 (19.6%)
   Hard copy (self-printed or purchased from vendor)
3 (3.2%)
5 (4.9%)
   Flexbook used in only one way
33 (35.5%)
44 (43.1%)

Research from Hilton & Laman (2012 paywall) shows a similar student preference for electronic vs print, with 62% of students choosing a free online version of the textbook compared to a low cost print on demand version of the same textbook (n=307). Incidentally, the Hilton & Laman research, like previous research, showed that students who used the free open textbook scored higher on departmental final examinations, had higher grade point averages in the class and had higher retention rates than those students who used a traditional text).

Now, there is a certain “d’uh” quality to this – free wins is kind of a no-brainer. But, for me, it shows just how powerful the economic argument is when it comes to student format preference. Which is why I think that when it comes to discussions as to whether students prefer one format over the other, we need to look closely at the economic terms being offered to students for those electronic resources and see whether the students are rejecting the format, or the terms being offered to them to use that format.

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