The Pros and Cons of E-Textbooks

July 04, 2011

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Searchable, weighing only a few ounces, and frequently updated. These aren’t characteristics usually associated with bulky textbooks. But with the increased prevalence of portable reading devices such as Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad, textbooks are getting a serious makeover for the 2010s. They’re going digital and these e-textbooks are making their way into classrooms from elementary school to college.

It’s another setback for beleaguered hardback textbooks, already reeling from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that students reduce the weight of books in their backpacks.

Now, an interest in reducing the environmental impact of textbook printing - as well as in saving money by cutting out physical book distributors - is leading educators to weigh the pros and cons of bringing e-textbooks into their classrooms.

Why Go Digital?

Schools and universities across the nation are launching initiatives to test whether e-textbooks can improve learning and cut costs, according to the Wall Street Journal. E-textbooks are marketed as being environmentally friendly, immediately available via download, current, and full of features that traditional books simply cannot offer -- including the opportunity to highlight text and type notes directly onscreen.

Not surprisingly, the push to convert students to e-textbooks is gaining momentum via social media and an appeal to buyers’ feel-good desire to save money and paper., one of the largest online retailers of e-textbooks, has expanded beyond simply selling hardcover and e-books to creating a community for textbook buyers. It even touts a “social learning network,” or online study group for students.

Buying an e-textbook on the site is as easy as simply entering an ISBN number, title, or author in the search box. Download it and the book is yours, instantly.


While an e-textbook may be lighter, less expensive, and more appealing to a generation that grew up with smartphones, hardback books still serve a purpose -and not just as a paperweight.

Joanne Kravetz, academic department director for Interior Design at The Art Institute of California — Los Angeles, believes that e-textbooks are valuable to students but asserts that “some hardcover art books with colored plates have greater value” than their digital counterparts.

As with any technology, e-textbooks are only as good as the device they’re loaded onto.

“E-books can be susceptible to viruses, dead batteries, technical difficulties, and malfunctions,” says Kravetz, who has heard from students and instructors that the books don’t always perform as promised.


A Wall Street Journal article on students’ initial reactions to e-textbooks showed that while many found e-textbooks’ special functions to be beneficial, others found the texts “awkward and inconvenient.”

The article asserts that e-textbooks face additional hurdles from the very market they target - young, tech-savvy students. When members of this key demographic were asked what they wanted in e-textbooks, “many said they wanted interactive features like videos and quizzes,” the article explains.

So far, e-textbooks haven’t added in these features.

Even so, the digital books’ ease of use is making them an appealing alternative to bulky hardcover textbooks. The instructors Kravetz has talked with continue to debate whether the digital books are as beneficial to students as traditional textbooks.


Students considering going digital with their textbooks need to balance the pros and cons of the purchase. For example, there will be a very high start-up cost if the student doesn’t already own a device capable of downloading or storing the e-textbook.

Another potential downside is that e-textbooks typically cannot be resold, according to TeleRead author David Rothman. Reselling used textbooks is often a way for students to recoup some of their money, so the potential savings of an e-textbook may be diminished if the digital version cannot be resold. Finally, some books expire after a set amount of time, meaning students cannot access them for future reference.

But the benefits of e-textbooks cannot be overlooked. Their portability and ease of use open up new opportunities to engage students in subject matter. Students can hyperlink to more information straight from the “pages” of their digital textbooks. And for a generation that’s used to digital everything, this may be particularly appealing - especially if the books evolve and offer a more interactive user experience.

One thing is for certain: students choosing to purchase e-textbooks will be on the forefront of merging technology with education. It’s a trend that’s going to keep educators crunching numbers to see if advances in technology correlate with increases in test scores and decreases in the cost of education.

Author: Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite
Contributing writer for EDMC.

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