Elizabeth Lorbeer
Elizabeth Lorbeer
Library Director, Western Michigan University School of Medicine
Source: Anthia Cumming/iStockphoto
Source: Anthia Cumming/iStockphoto

All schools of higher education struggle to keep their costs of attendance as competitive and reasonable as possible. One of the longest, most debated arguments on campus amongst learners and educators is the cost of required textbooks. The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), a U.S. federal law, contains a textbook provision that requires publishers and campus bookstores to disclose pricing and revision information, and for schools to declare their textbook list prior to registration. Having this information available allows the learner to decide and budget, prior to the first day of class, the cost involved to take the course. The HEAO textbook provision has also provided the opportunity for learners to price compare amongst the brick-and-mortar and online bookstores to buy material at the lowest cost.   With competitive pricing, many online digital textbook providers offer the option to rent an e-textbook or buy per chapter from their website.   A recent survey showed that when the electronic textbook price was discounted more than the print price, students were more willing to select the digital option as a way to save money.

But do students buy and use electronic textbooks? Instructors know when students are offered the option to purchase, most will not. The NACS OnCampus Research survey reported that learners forego purchasing required textbooks if they perceived the material to be unnecessary.   With help from instructional designers, instructors can gain strategy on how to engage students in the digital realm by selecting e-textbooks with customizable widgets and shared annotation features.   More and more faculty embrace the advantages that digital media provides by highlighting and annotating required readings and sharing notes within the textbook, all as a means of fostering collaborative learning.(Editor’s note: WileyPLUS offers this functionality, among other features, for e-textbooks) In the U.S. PIRG report, students reported they were more willing to purchase or rent their textbooks when instructors incorporated required course materials. Many digital textbook platforms also offer study tools such as test banks, flashcards, and interactive multimedia to enhance independent learning.

As schools struggle with the cost of their textbook programs, many are introducing e-textbooks as an affordable option. Students who could not afford to purchase their required textbooks almost unanimously reported they suffered academically because of this choice.   Since 2007, students spend less each year on purchasing required course materials, although more students are choosing to rent textbooks instead.   More schools now report in the higher education literature of purchasing required textbooks in both electronic and print format, on behalf of their students, to combat inconsistencies for those who were simply going without or using much older editions.

Are electronic textbooks at least as good as paper textbooks? Yes, but this answer is more complex and individualized to each learner. There are many factors that influence a learner’s decision to purchase an electronic textbook. It all depends on the amount of reading, subject and perceived difficulty in mastering new content.   Some find the lures of social media too strong and opt for a print work as it is less distracting.   Overall, we know learners sometimes prefer print, and other times they prefer the electronic version but generally, surveys on this subject seem to be in agreement that having access to both an electronic and print textbook copy is optimal. But, we’re back to cost. Very few students can afford to purchase both formats.   Possibly, the answer lies in being able to print on demand an exact reproduction of the print work from the e-textbook to provide learner’s the options they seek.   However, digital rights management technologies limit how much can be printed.   If e-textbook programs are going to be successful, for all learners, the ability to go back and forth between the print and electronic format will be key.