To save money, colleges are moving away from textbooks to e-books But a retired college professor says studies suggest that for reading assignments of more than a page in length students grasp more from a paper text than a screen.
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Digital textbooks reduce costs, but do they also reduce learning?

Rick Diguette is a frequent Get School contributor on higher ed issues. He is a local writer who retired from college teaching last year.

In this essay, he examines whether the cost savings offered by digital college textbooks – electronic or e-books -- outweigh the potential drawbacks. 

Diguette cites the research showing students just don’t learn as well from screens as they do the printed page. 

By Rick Diguette

It costs a small fortune to go to college these days. According to the most recent annual report of the Institute for College Access & Success, by the time four-year college graduates walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, they owe on average almost $30,000 in loan debt. As for all those students who drop out before earning the right to take that walk, they typically owe about $14,000.

That’s why private and public institutions are under increasing pressure to reduce their students’ financial burden. Some have cut tuition costs and stepped up alumni fund-raising efforts, while others have expanded student access to scholarships and grants that don’t have to be paid back. It remains to be seen if these measures will begin to erode the mountain of debt that Forbes magazine has dubbed America’s $1.5 trillion crisis.

Another cost-cutting measure involves the lowly textbook. Students attending expensive private colleges are just as likely as their peers at public institutions to have low-cost, or even no-cost, e-textbook options in some of their classes. The differences between their centuries-old hardcover forebears and today’s e-textbooks are obvious: traditional textbooks weigh a lot more, typically cost a lot more, and are a lot more likely to get lost, damaged, or stolen. E-textbooks, on the other hand, are so easily accessed with a laptop, tablet, or cell phone that they can look like a no-brainer. At least until you do a little digging. 

Studies dating back to the early 1990s have suggested that for reading assignments of more than one page in length ― there will be plenty of those in college ― students appear better at comprehending complexity when reading a paper text as opposed to a screen. These same studies provide another way to look at this: while many of today’s so-called digital natives prefer screen reading and do it faster than when reading paper texts, their understanding of what they’ve read may not be nearly as deep.   

When considering the cost-effectiveness of e-textbooks, you might first give some thought to all the things teens do when using a cellphone, tablet, or laptop. It’s a good bet constant access to social media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube could compromise your child’s ability to concentrate on a lengthy and complex reading assignment. The causes and ramifications of the American Civil War will have a hard time competing against the latest distracting Internet meme and incoming text messages. 

Rick Diguette

Another thing to consider is just how much time teens devote to their screens. Common Sense Media reported in 2015 that teens spend about five hours a day watching videos, using social media, and playing video games. There is no reason to think that number has gone down over the last three years. And the “smarter” smartphones get, the chances your child might go academically AWOL for hours at a time each day, especially when far away from home, are pretty good.

If you’re eager to save money when it comes to your child’s college education, you also want to make sure those savings don’t jeopardize academic outcomes. E-textbooks can seem like a good way to reduce costs, but not if they adversely affect the learning process.

It would be a shame if your children had to retake a class because they did little more than scratched the surface of their e-textbook.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.