The Bare Truth about Digital Textbooks

readingtextbookStudents would prefer printed text if cost wasn’t an issue. One researcher believes digital textbooks may be harming our next generation.

Don’t believe everything you hear about Millennials and their preference for digital media. That’s the sage advice Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni offers after his conversation with Dr. Naomi Baron, author of several scholarly books on communication in our digital age.

“As an educator, Naomi has many concerns about the cost of print versus digital, especially when her research has shown that other than the cost, overall students would prefer their reading both for school and pleasure to be in print,” Husni writes. “It was a highly informative and eye-opening discussion.”

Eye-opening in large part because, despite what you may believe about Millennials, they show time and again that for many applications – including studying – they would choose print over digital if they could.

The major attraction of digital for the 400 students interviewed in Dr. Baron’s research was cost.

“We’re working very hard in the United States to make universities open to a broader cohort economically, that has been the case,” Dr. Baron notes. “And whether it’s a community college, where textbooks cost more than your tuition does, or a medium-sized private university, such as American University, where there are students who say I wait until the middle of the semester to see if I really have to buy a book because if I don’t have to, I don’t have the money to buy it. Or if I have the money, we don’t even use the book enough to buy it; I’m going to use my money for something else.”

It’s a financial consideration, not a preference for digital, that often pushes students in the digital direction when it’s available. When asked if the price were the same, which would they choose, 87% said they’d prefer paper.

“And 92% said it was easiest for them to concentrate when they read on hard copy,” Dr. Baron notes. “And to me that’s an astounding figure from this generation.”

The college textbook market is one place that seems to be run based not on what the consumer (the college student) wants, but by how much money they can extract from already cash-strapped young people. And according to June Jamrich Parsons, “the current model in which textbooks are offered in print and as digital actually increases costs because of the expense of the digital platform and conversion.” (See Parson’s interesting SlideShare “Digital Textbook Report 2015”.)

Dr. Baron has some fascinating ideas and insights into how educational practices, and in particular course materials, have changed how and what students learn. She has some grave concerns that our higher education system is adapting how it works not based on what’s really best for the long-term outcome, but what’s expedient.

Still, she’s hopeful.

“The reason that I haven’t totally despaired,” she notes, “is there are at least some people who are seriously asking the question: how do we learn best and how do we learn what’s best? One of the discussions that hasn’t taken place yet seriously; the research has not been done, is to ask are there some subjects and some materials that are best done in print? Or are there some things that can work very well digitally?”

It’s an important question and a fascinating discussion, and Husni’s complete interview is well worth the longer read.