Students Prefer Print. Why Are Schools Pushing Digital Textbooks?

By Alex Lenkei — March 07, 2016 2 min read
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For the past few years, districts and the federal government have been pressuring textbook publishers to invest in open education resources and digital content rather than print textbooks that are often more costly and out-of-date. In fact, in 2012, President Obama’s administration challenged states and digital-learning providers to get e-textbooks in the hands of all students by 2017.

It’s easy to see why states and districts are eager to adapt to the new technology. Digital content is often cheaper, can be more easily updated to reflect the newest research, and is more environmentally friendly. But, surprisingly, students and children seem to overwhelmingly prefer print over digital books.

According to a 2013 study from American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron for her book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, if the cost was the same for print and e-books, 87 percent of undergraduate and graduate students surveyed said they would prefer to read paper books for school than e-books and 92 percent found paper books the easiest medium to concentrate in. A recent study by Scholastic found that this preference is on the rise: In 2015, 65 percent of children ages 6-17 said they will always want to read print books, up from 60 percent in 2012.

Baron identified two main reasons for this preference for print over digital. “The first was [young people] say they get distracted, pulled away to other things,” she said in an interview with the New Republic. “The second had to do with eye strain and headaches and physical discomfort.”

Meanwhile, the push to digitize textbooks doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Houston, the nation’s seventh-largest school district, is in the process of moving away from traditional textbooks and taking advantage of online educational resources. Other districts are pursuing similar plans. Also, federal officials recently announced that 13 states are joining the U.S. Department of Education’s open education resource initiative, #GoOpen, which launched last October.

But students who prefer the weight and feel of a physical book in their hands shouldn’t despair. Over the next few years, as digital textbooks continue to grow, print will still likely remain a primary educational tool for teachers.

“It will still take quite some time before all schools fully abandon print texts, if ever,” Troy Hicks, a professor of English at Central Michigan University, told EdWeek. “No one is throwing books away just because every student now has a device.”

One reason for a print preference may be that students are used to using digital devices for recreational use but don’t yet feel comfortable reading on their devices, Hicks notes. “As a space for social networking, playing games, taking pictures, and the like, phones and tablets feel quite natural for our students,” he said. “Yet, when asked to switch to a more mindful and sustained practice of reading a longer article or a book, scrolling or tapping on the screen doesn’t feel right.”

Teachers need to focus on making sure students can engage critically with both print and digital texts, said Kristen Turner, an associate professor of curriculum and teaching at Fordham University, to EdWeek. “Teens are already reading an enormous amount in digital spaces, and schools need to teach them how to do so critically, just as we have done in teaching them how to read print,” Turner added.

Watch for our conversation with Naomi Baron in the next few weeks as we continue discussing print and digital reading.

Image via Psychobabble/Flickr Creative Commons

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.