By Kate Leboff
Half of Americans own an e-reading device, up from the 30% that owned one in 2013; in 2012, President Obama wanted to get e-textbooks into every classroom by 2017; and Florida lawmakers have mandated that public schools convert textbooks to digital versions. Despite the surge of technology, e-books, and “digital natives,” in recent years, evidence published in 2015 shows that, at the very least, the vast majority of students at colleges and universities around the world still prefer print to digital.
A slew of news reports have announced that after extensive studies and surveys of college students are in favor of reading their assigned readings – textbooks, journals, novels etc. – for courses in print versus on screen. One survey of 500 active college students, taken by Direct Textbook, a comprehensive textbook price comparison service, found that 72% of students prefer print textbooks to e-books. A study at the University of Washington found that a quarter of students still bought print versions of e-textbooks, even when those books were offered free of charge. I can sympathize. When purchasing the textbooks for the first two courses of the GW Publishing Program, I decided to purchase the print version of the title, The Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, despite it being offered online for free.
In January of this year, Naomi S. Baron published Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, in which she discusses “how technology is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read. Digital reading is increasingly popular. Reading onscreen has many virtues… Yet, Baron argues, the virtues of eReading are matched with drawbacks.” – from the Oxford University Press.
In her book, Baron also completed a survey of more than 300 college students in the U.S., Japan, Germany, and Slovakia, finding a nearly university preference for the tangible textbook versus its digital version. A startling 92% of students said they concentrated and comprehended more when reading a hard copy versus on a cell phone, tablet, e-reader, or computer. However, it seems that the format and medium on which these college-age digital natives are reading for pleasure, “light reading,” does not matter as much. In children and adolescents, though, it seems that reading print versus digital books is on the rise as 65% of 6 to 17 year olds would prefer “real” books to e-books, an increase of almost 17% from 2012.
In 2014, 87% of textbook sales were print editions while only 9% of the market were comprised of e-book purchases. With the leftover 4% being made up of file sharing.
The biggest issues, as outlined by Baron in her book, are students getting distracted, finding themselves multitasking and taking breaks to surf the internet more often, and the eye strain, headaches, and physical discomfort that accompanies reading on screen for hours at a time. 90% found themselves multitasking when reading onscreen than those reading the hard copy versions.
Some other reasons that have been cited as to why students prefer print textbooks to e-books included: Print textbooks are easier to read, they like the physical effort of annotating what they are reading, some print textbooks are cheaper – buying used, e-books are difficult to navigate and bookmark, they do not require internet access, professors do not allow laptops or tablets in class, the availability of e-books can be limited, and students seem to often print out the pages of online and e-book readings anyways.
The students who like to read digitally versus having the tactile, physical experience referenced the fact that e-books are often cheaper, are lighter and searchable, are environmentally friendly, e-readers allow adjustable print size and brightness, text can be converted to audio, and these can often be used with apps.
In the end, it seems that, at least for now, print textbooks rule the world of higher education.
One student, Cooper Nordquist, a student studying political science at American University, commented that, “[he] couldn’t imagine reading Tocqueville, [the 900 plus-page, “Democracy in America”], or understanding him electronically. That would be just awful.”
Another commented that “You just get distracted. It’s like if I finish a paragraph, i’ll go on Tumblr, and then three hours later you’re still not done with reading.”