textbooks.resizedWhile college textbooks might represent one of the most convenient uses for e-books—replacing a ton of heavy books that are a pain to tote around—for some professors and students, they turn out to have insurmountable drawbacks. The Fullerton College Hornet has an article looking at this issue.

The biggest problem is that it’s simply not as easy to flip back and forth to different pages for the purpose of tests or end-of-chapter reviews, which results in students doing more poorly on exams. Another issue is that, when taking tests, many devices that can read e-books can also access the Internet and other outside-of-class sources—and even those that don’t have Internet access can store additional books and crib notes. Some math professors ban the use of any electronic devices in their classroom at all.

Can these obstacles be overcome? It doesn’t seem likely. While e-books are great for keyword-searching and access via tables of contents, for tasks that require flipping back and forth and finding the right page in a hurry, they’re not so great. While e-books do have the convenience of instant access and search capability, they will probably always be better-suited to mass-market fiction that is meant to be read in a linear fashion, rather than textbooks and reference material that needs instant random access.

(Found via The Passive Voice.)


  1. The original article, in an online student newspaper, is terribly written, poorly researched and hardly thought out. Writers have to start somewhere and usually make all of these mistakes early on. Let’s hope that this presumably young writer keeps plugging along and improving as a result.
    The eTextbook situation in higher education is far more complex than most who write about it are able to see. To cite one key example, the eTextbook is usually referred to as if seeing one of them yields the same result as seeing all of them. This basic error undermines all subsequent analysis.
    While the pTextbook experience is fairly uniform after many decades of development, the eTextbook experience is all over the map. The eReader and eBook format combine to produce a vast array of different experiences. So which eTextbook experience are we comparing to the pTextbook and how can we legitimately generalize that to the universe of textbooks?
    It’s not just the reading and studying experience. The economics are significantly different as well. A student can buy new or used pTextbooks using other peoples’ money (loans, scholarships, etc.) and then sell those same pTextbooks for cash that can be spent in any way the student chooses. This can’t be done with eTextbooks regardless of whether they are rented, licensed in perpetuity or free as in public domain or open source. Generating discretionary cash can be very important to many students and lead them to a stated preference for paper textbooks. Of course they have to concoct a more socially acceptable rationale for that preference and, so, you get responses that distort survey data.

  2. Frank is absolutely right. One thing about e-textbooks is that many of them are locked down to such a point that the benefits of e-books are lost. For example, many of them can only be viewed in a walled off environment such as VitalSource Bookshelf (which doesn’t let you access the book from an e-reader and allows very limited copying/annotating possibilities) or they are available at very high cost only in pdf format (which is clumsy for lots of obvious reasons). Tables and figures are often very hard to view in an e-textbook. And older editions (which are cheaper but often still acceptable to teachers) can be impossible to purchase in an e-version. I’m not surprised students prefer print books when the e-books are such a hassle.

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