For over a decade, we have witnessed a steady shift in university research and learning materials from print to digital. The move affects both general library acquisitions and course textbooks.
The transition’s pace has varied across countries with different pricing (including taxation) policies, along with cultural attitudes towards print. However, the pandemic proved an equaliser, as classes went virtual and the need for digital books exploded.
Print textbooks: differences between US and UK
The American digital turn was largely driven by financial and access considerations.
In the US, university students are responsible for procuring their own textbooks. (Libraries typically don’t purchase traditional-style course texts.) For decades, students have economised by selling their books at the end of the term, as well as purchasing used rather than new copies. More recently, a rental market has flourished for both print and eBooks, with over 40% of students now renting books.
For students, digital purchase prices in the US have been lower than for print. Publishers also reap monetary benefits through lower production and distribution costs. Meanwhile, the inclusive access model, whereby digital course books are supplied for a fee on the first day of class to all enrolled students, continues to grow in popularity.
In talking about financial issues, we need to be mindful of costs to whom, when, and where
UK higher education textbook practices are different.
Libraries, not students, are largely responsible for procuring course textbooks, and prices that publishers charge libraries are higher than for private purchases. Recent protests over sharp price hikes to UK university libraries for digital textbooks caution us that, in talking about financial issues, we need to be mindful of costs to whom, when, and where.
In my research on university student reading practices in the US, Japan, Germany, Slovakia, and India, respondents valued lower prices for digital books plus convenience (such as storing multiple books on a single device, searchability of text, and accessing online dictionaries).
Surveys of US faculty members show parallel concern about the high cost of print textbooks, leading many faculty to recommend digital texts rather than print, to assign digital open educational resources, or to skip using textbooks entirely.
The case for print textbooks
But what about learning from digital versus print material, especially when reading longform continuous text?
Mounting experimental evidence confirms that when reading prose texts of at least several hundred words, students from middle school through university show better reading comprehension with print. The print advantage is especially evident with test questions whose answers require abstraction, inference, remembering details, or identifying where in a story an event occurs.
University students that I or my colleagues have surveyed show that the overwhelming majority perceive they concentrate, learn, and remember better with print
Equally telling are judgments from learners themselves. University students that I or my colleagues have surveyed show that the overwhelming majority perceive they concentrate, learn, and remember better with print than with digital texts.
Some of these findings result from differences in the physical affordances of paper versus digital screens, but others stem from user mindset. Today’s students (along with the rest of us) generally apply less mental effort in reading digital texts – approaching them more like social media – than when using print.
The mindset issue brings us back to libraries. As university libraries (pre-pandemic) began shifting acquisitions from print to digital, two usage patterns emerged.
A positive result was that students and researchers had 24/7 access to books and other resources. More problematically, the move to digital commonly meant patrons shifted from “reading” books to “using” them.
With a digital book, we tend to do quick word searches, find what we’re looking for, and be done. Had we physically gone to a library and taken the book off the shelf, we were more likely to linger over paragraphs or maybe skim other chapters. In the physical library, we also might happen upon other volumes of interest.
The move to digital commonly meant patrons shifted from ‘reading’ books to ‘using’ them
A post-pandemic balancing act
Libraries everywhere face the challenge of not being able to afford both print and digital versions of general books in their collections. The same is true for university textbooks.
Someday the pandemic will end, and we will return to far more in-person learning. Regardless of whether students or university libraries are footing the bill, we will need to decide how much cost and convenience should determine textbook medium as opposed to depth of learning.
Up until now, the learning component has gotten short shrift in purchase (or assignment) decisions.
Cost and access considerations are real and need to be addressed. But if higher education is to benefit our students, we also must listen to their own assessments of how they learn best.
Naomi S. Baron is Professor Emerita of Linguistics at American University in Washington, DC, and author of How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, and Audio (Oxford University Press).
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