Digital or paper textbooks?

“And starting in September, we get to take our iPads home!” My daughter is 11, and just last year she started using an iPad in class. Online exercises, downloadable homework, in-class games… Brilliant idea, we thought, finally, no more heavy textbooks. But no. It turns out that she still has to carry a heavy knapsack full of textbooks every day to school, and man, those things are heavy! So, why?

textbooks in schools

Paper textbooks are static, expensive and bulky. Digital textbooks are cheaper, updatable, and obviously, lighter. I’ve written before about the advantages of paper books over digital books, but in that post I was thinking mainly of reading for pleasure, and how I prefer paper over a screen. But for studying, learning and research, it’s a different story.

There are some who prefer learning from paper, and I get that – it’s somewhat easier to focus, and many claim that it’s easier to learn. I’m not saying that digital textbooks are the ultimate solution. But I do believe that their advantages far outweigh their disadvantages. Let’s look at both:


Obviously, with digital textbooks, weight and volume are no longer a problem. One 4GB tablet weighs approximately 600-700g, and can contain over 3,000 books. That many textbooks would weigh almost 5,000kg. Of course, no student will need that many, but it does show the difference of scale.

Having all your textbooks in one place makes preparing for class and studying so much easier. Who hasn’t forgotten a key textbook at some time or another? I still remember that frustrating feeling of slipping behind just because I couldn’t organize my books better.

The search function is also a huge efficiency gain. You don’t understand epistemology? Type it into the search function and see all the references to it throughout the textbook, and/or get a simple definition from the inbuilt or online dictionary. That saves so much fluffing around with dictionaries and indices.

One thing I love about e-books is the ability to highlight and make notes on the text, which are then summarized in another file. That makes my research so much easier, and I can just imagine what it would do for studying for exams…

Teachers can show a textbook page on the whiteboard, add detail with the e-pen which the students can annotate in the text on their screen.

E-textbooks can easily be updated. A new government in South Sudan? A new planet on the other side of Pluto? Having up-to-date relevant information makes the textbook so much more useful and efficient, especially if it has to do with sectors changing every year, such as economics or technology.

Shall we talk about environmental issues? Think of the number of trees that can be saved. It seems a bit hypocritical to urge people to not print emails unless absolutely necessary, but to then allow the unnecessary printing of textbooks.

digital textbooks in schools


Many say that the price is a barrier, that e-textbooks end up costing the student or the school even more than print, once you factor in the cost of the tablet. At university level, let’s face it, most students are going to have some sort of tablet anyway, right? And according to Mary Meeker’s seminal study on Internet trends, tablet usage is going through the roof (+52% yoy in 2013), so I think that it’s safe to assume that more and more university students will have their own device, so that’s a sunk cost that is not dependent on whether or not the textbooks are digital or paper. And, tablet costs are coming down fast, which is relevant for both older students paying for their own devices, as well as for schools funding tablets for younger students.

It’s likely that the cost of digital textbooks will also continue to decline as the production gets more efficient and as more people use e-textbooks, which will broaden even further the cost gap. And let’s not forget that the marginal cost of production of e-textbooks, that is, the cost of “printing” more once the production is complete, is $0.

Working in the digital world can be more distracting. The added functionalities can detract from deep focus, and jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink can lead to a loss of train of thought. However, the distractions and the link jumping can themselves lead to new insights, and the easy access to footnote sources makes deep learning more possible, not less. And for each study you find showing that students learn better on paper, you’ll find another one saying the opposite.

It is true that paper textbooks are easier to skim, and to jump back and forth. Personally I find it much easier to visualize the information in relation to its physical location, what the experts call “cognitive mapping”… I remember that the analysis of Germany’s economic decline was towards the beginning, on the right hand page, for example. However, as e-reader technology continues to advance and become even cheaper, we will be able to “visualize” books, with pages and all, on our tablets. If you use note-taking or writing apps such as Bamboo or Paper, you know what I mean. Check out this video from the KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence to get an idea of what’s coming:

We mentioned before that e-textbooks can easily be updated. That sounds like a good thing. Unless, as my husband points out, we decide that we don’t trust the updaters. With updatable textbooks, history can, literally, be re-written. However, with online information transparency and access to original print books, it is very unlikely that enough information can be supressed or revised to convince an increasingly educated populace. In fact, pre-Internet it would have been much easier to re-write history, as access to print books is significantly more limited than access to e-books.

What about vulnerability to power cuts? Since we’re looking into the future here, I think that it’s relatively safe to assume that the current trends in developing increasingly green, inexpensive energy sources will continue. And Internet connections will become even faster and more reliable (remember the dial-up modems? That was only 10 years ago!).

In the US, the decision to use digital or paper e-books for public schools is made at a local level, and some states and communities are adopting them faster than others. In the UK, the use of textbooks, paper or digital, is not obligatory in public schools, and just 10% of teachers issue whole textbooks to classes, preferring photocopies and individual exercises. South Korea has pledged to ban all print textbooks from its schools by next year.

And in Spain, where I live, the textbook situation is somewhat ridiculous. Here, the public education is free, but the textbooks are not. That itself is a point of contention, as the Constitution guarantees access to a free education for all citizens. And textbooks are an obligatory part of that education, you can’t go to class if you don’t have them. But they’re not free. Understandably, there is some resentment at the State’s interpretation of “free education”.

And these textbooks are not cheap. There is a type of cartel, with few publishing houses (the largest is part of a media group with considerable political clout) cornering the market  through agreements with the Ministry of Education, which establishes which textbooks are necessary for which courses. So there is no price competition. Families complain that they have to buy new textbooks every year. In spite of the editorials’ assurances, there is virtually no market for second-hand books.

Education is a local issue at state level, and each state has their own textbooks (Catalan textbooks are nothing like those from other states, for example, and not just because of the language). Smaller runs mean higher prices.

The law says that the textbooks can’t be updated more often than every four years. But the teaching style is for “participation” textbooks, in which the young students write, draw, colour, cut out… So, of course, they have to be replaced every year. Is that really necessary? Could the children not do their work in blank notebooks? Or on photocopied sheets provided by the teacher?

If you speak Spanish, I invite you to take a look at Enrique Dans’ effective and moving diatribe against Spanish textbook publishers in his blog.

I personally think that one of the greatest strengths of education is to show us how to find things out for ourselves. Whether we learn better with digital books or paper books is not the important question, inasmuch as I very much doubt that we will ever categorically answer it one way or another…  A more interesting question is which method is better for showing us how to discover?

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If you want to see even more articles about the Future of Books, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading:

Books and Reading on Flipboard

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