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It's that time of year again: back-to-school shopping season. (Illustration by Julianne Griepp, Laguna College of Art and Design)

Are Digital Textbooks Better or Worse Than Print?

With more e-books available than ever, you might find yourself having to choose between digital or print versions of your textbooks this semester.

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With more e-books available than ever, you might find yourself having to choose between digital or print versions of your textbooks this semester.

Textbooks are a staple of college education, and many of us have undoubtedly spent countless hours deep in their pages. But as the internet and electronic devices become increasingly prevalent in all aspects of life, publishers are attempting to go digital. Recently, Pearson, a major textbook publishing company, announced that they will go “digital-first,” meaning that they will primarily focus on producing digital textbooks instead of print versions. Whether or not this is a beneficial decision has yet to be seen; there might be many advantages to digital textbooks, but they are not without drawbacks.

In the age of portable electronic devices, digital textbooks are more easily accessible and less unwieldy than print ones. Students can only conceivably carry a few physical textbooks at a time depending on their size and weight, which inevitably leads to heavy backpacks, a problem that is well-known to cause back pain and, in some cases, lasting damage. In contrast, digital textbooks don’t have this problem, since multiple textbooks can be accessed from a single, much lighter device.

Along the same lines, digital textbooks cannot be lost or damaged in the same way that print textbooks can; even if a student’s device is lost or damaged, assuming that the proper precautions were taken beforehand, the textbook can still be accessed from another device. Print textbooks, on the other hand, are easily stained and torn by stray drinks and careless fingers.

Furthermore, digital textbooks are more environmentally-friendly than physical textbooks, since they don’t need to be printed on massive amounts of paper; all digital textbooks require is some sort of device to access them, which many students already have. According to the 2017 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, the vast majority of college students own either a laptop or a smartphone, and if not, many college libraries have computers that you can use to access digital textbooks.

Additionally, it is easier, cheaper and faster to update digital textbooks with discoveries, new information or edits. Whereas previously, most textbook publishers released new editions of print textbooks every few years, which forced many students to either buy expensive new textbooks or keep outdated ones. Digital textbooks will mitigate this issue, and students will always have access to the most up-to-date content.

Not only do digital textbooks solve some of the many problems print copies have, but digital versions have some extra features as well. For example, digital textbooks have the added advantage of a search function, which allows students to navigate the textbooks more easily and find key terms that they might have missed with a physical index. This can also help readers make connections, such as references to previous concepts in later chapters, which otherwise might have been missed completely.

Last, but certainly not least, digital textbooks are less expensive than print textbooks — they can be up to 60% cheaper since digital textbooks don’t require printing and shipping, and publishers can provide them at a much lower price. This is sorely needed, since the cost of a few textbooks can add up incredibly fast.

Even so, there are some disadvantages of digital textbooks to consider. Firstly, digital textbooks have no resale value, which is one of the benefits of buying a print textbook. For some textbooks, the net cost of a digital version might end up being more than the cost of the print textbook when the resale price is taken into account.

And even if the digital textbook does end up being cheaper in the long run, there are still other problems that print textbooks don’t have. Studying from a digital textbook requires you to stare at a screen for hours, which is harmful to a person’s eyesight; looking at a screen causes people to blink less than if they’re looking at a printed page, which can cause dry and sore eyes.

Additionally, students have to be careful with lighting conditions, because staring at a bright screen in a dark room can cause further eye strain. Studying from a device for hours on end can have its drawbacks, but if students takes proper breaks and precautions, these problems can be avoided for the most part.

Another drawback to studying from a digital textbook is that it’s a lot easier to get distracted. It’s no secret that computers, phones and tablets provide ample opportunity for easy distraction; a notification might pop up and lead to hours of scrolling through social media, or a text might completely derail your train of thought and set you thinking about your weekend plans, whereas with a print textbook, there are fewer possible distractions from studying.

Lastly, reading digitally leads to weaker reading comprehension than reading print; a study found that while students read faster on a screen, their comprehension was much worse. Specifically, the students who read the material on paper remembered and understood the specific details much better than those who read digitally. For college students who have to focus on those specific details, using digital textbooks could leave them at a disadvantage compared to their print-using peers.

All in all, the decision of whether to use a digital textbook or a print one is a matter of weighing the pros and cons and deciding which option suits you the best. Also, your decision doesn’t have to go completely digital or to only use print textbooks; perhaps for a class in which the bigger picture is more important, a digital textbook might be more useful because you can sacrifice detail comprehension for speed, or it could be a simple matter of a class that requires you to bring your textbook to each session, in which case the increased portability of a digital textbook would work best.

Maybe you just like the smell of books, so you prefer print textbooks. The answer could be as simple as that, but in all cases, make sure to weigh all your options before deciding.

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