The pros and cons of digital textbooks

We’ve all seen it happen. Your English class is about to start exploring a new novel, and you’re reaching into your bag to retrieve it. From across the room, a classmate proudly proclaims, “Dr. E, my book hasn’t arrived yet.” Said classmate will usually look up a PDF of the book online as a temporary solution.

If it’s so easy to find a copy of a book online, though, why do students still comb through book lists before the start of each year, purchasing dozens of books from Amazon and the Illini Bookstore?

“That’s a good question,” says English teacher Steve Rayburn. “There are some schools that have actually done that sort of thing, where everything is digitalized.” He says that “in the future, that’s probably going to be the way everybody has their books.”

He mentions recent scientific studies suggesting that students retain more from reading physical texts than digital ones, and that resistance against digital texts will likely increase if those studies’ results are confirmed and replicated.

Reading from a physical book instead of a digital screen has other benefits, according to some.

English Teacher Elizabeth Majerus says both students and teachers “remember things based on the spatial location on the page.” Shorter readings might work better with online PDFs, but “if you’re delving into a novel, it’s worth reading on paper,” she says.

With physical books, though, there’s another issue: some textbooks, especially science ones, have multiple editions, with their publishers frequently releasing new ones. For these textbooks, it’s much easier to update an online PDF instead of forcing students to purchase a completely new book. As a result, science textbooks will likely be the first to completely switch to digital formats, says Rayburn.

In any discussion on this topic, though, there’s always a rather large elephant in the room. As easy as it is to pull up a PDF of a book from the internet, it’s also just as easy to visit any other site or application. In a classroom, students who finish a reading assignment early, or are just plain bored, might go check their email, Discord, or Reddit with merely a few mouse clicks. This takes their attention away from whatever lesson or discussion is occurring. Physical books, meanwhile, don’t have this issue.

In the end, it’s not a question of if Uni and other schools will switch over to digital books, but when. How soon any department switches to digital books will depend on whether or not the benefits of a lighter backpack and lower cost outweigh the advantages of reading from paper, and if teachers trust students not to abuse their electronics.