Sunday, October 7, 2018

Digital or print course literature - it's complicated

CC0 Public domain on Max Pixel
Do you prefer to read print or digital books and articles? To me this sort of question is largely irrelevant because it all depends on the context and which form is most fit for purpose. I read enormous amounts both in print and online and switch from one medium to the other many times a day. I still love the feeling of reading a print newspaper or having a printed book to read in bed or while travelling. I have many packed bookshelves at home and the collection continues to grow. I even save years of back issues of the magazines I subscribe to and get satisfaction from my groaning bookshelves. At the same time I read a wide variety of online news sites, e-books and journal articles on my computer, tablet and mobile and I see these two forms of reading as complementary and not as an either/or conflict.

I suspect this is the same even for students. The growth of digital course literature, both from commercial publishers as well as free open textbooks from sites such as BC Open Textbooks (University of British Columbia), prompts frequent media interest often promoting the idea of a battle between print and digital. A new article by Andy M Benoit in the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and LearningTextbook Affordability and Student Acceptance of eTextbooks: An Institutional Case-study, sheds light on this issue and shows that the choice between print and digital is complex and there is no clear "winner" or "loser". The abstract summarises the study as follows:

There is significant interest among institutions of higher education in the potential of digital textbooks to enhance student learning and to address issues arising from textbook affordability. Innovations in digital textbook design and delivery infrastructure and the emergence of exemplary practices from early adopters signal that digital reading may be a practical alternative to print. Less well understood, however, is students’ experience of textbook affordability, their experience of print and digital textbook utilization, and factors that might influence their acceptance of digital textbooks. This paper explores the results of a semester-long eTextbook research project at a Canadian college and shares six suggestions grounded in student feedback.

Several issues are relevant here. Firstly there is the high cost of buying printed course literature and the study shows that many students do not buy all the required reading because of this. Many share books and I'm sure that many pages are copied and scanned to save money. The students in the study are particularly critical of teachers' underutilisation of some "required" reading in the course itself. Required reading must be an integral part of the course, otherwise it should be described as optional or recommended reading. Interestingly, despite the students belonging to the supposed digital generation, 65.8% of them stated that they prefer printed course literature. At the same time the cost savings of lower price or free digital literature are also extremely attractive and this leads to students having an ambivalent attitude to the print-digital dilemma. Even when the digital option is chosen there are issues around format and readability. The reading experience depends so much on which device is used and whether there is sufficiently good resolution, accessibility options, device portability and battery life.

The article makes a number of recommendations urging universities to offer more support to help students chose the best option for their course literature. If they choose digital material they need help to choose the right option for their device, or in some cases choose the right device to read the literature. Vendors of e-books should be able to offer a variety of formats adapted to different devices (as many already do). The author makes the following recommendations to universities and publishers.
  • Strengthen the value proposition for “required” textbooks to inform student purchasing decisions
  • Support students in identifying the medium that meets their needs
  • Provide information to ensure personal devices are conducive for eReading
  • Ensure eReader applications meet performance expectations
  • Develop vendor partnerships and relationships
  • Support students in developing medium appropriate reading strategies and study skills
The important point here is that there is no "right" answer; it all depends on context and ease of use. Sometimes I want the print version because I know I will refer to it for many years to come and I want it on my bookshelf. Other literature can be accessed digitally. Some literature will be read on a mobile device and other works will be read on my laptop or desktop computer. When I read digital material I want optimal resolution and the ability to annotate easily as well as being able to look up terminology and easily create references. Let's make sure that students are able to make informed choices and are able to read the course literature according to their own preferences.

Benoit, A. M. (2018). Textbook Affordability and Student Acceptance of eTextbooks: An Institutional Case-study. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(2). Retrieved from

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