The Trouble with eBooks and Digital Reading

The cost of college textbooks has increased at an alarming rate. According to the College Board, the average student spends more than $1,200 on books and materials each year. The proposed solution—advocated by universities and reformers alike—is a switch to eBooks and online course materials. But new evidence suggests that we should consider that switch carefully before embracing a wholesale conversion from print to digital materials.

Textbook prices certainly warrant academia’s clamor for change. From 1978 to 2013, the price of college textbooks increased more than 800 percent—faster than medical care (588 percent), new home prices (375 percent), and the CPI itself (257 percent). According to a study by the Student Public Interest Research Group (Student PIRGs), the cost of textbooks is now roughly 39 percent of tuition and fees at a community college and 14 percent at a four-year public institution. The cost of textbooks contributes significantly to students’ total education bill.

Student PIRGs explains how the textbook market is broken:

[T]raditional textbook publisher[s] benefit from a fundamental market flaw in the college textbook market. Unlike a typical market, there is no direct interaction between the producer and the consumer. With normal markets, like the automobile market, the consumer exercises control over prices by choosing to purchase products that priced best for their value. This consumer choice forces producers to price their products competitively…In the textbook market, this consumer control is eliminated by the fact that the professor, not the student/consumer selects the product, and the student/consumer actually expends the money. Because of this, the student is a captive market, and traditional publishers are able to drive continually prices higher without fear of market repercussion.

In Virginia, legislators passed a bill earlier this year taking on the issue. Virginia House Bill 454 requires Virginia’s public colleges and universities to create guidelines for the adoption of open educational resources, i.e., openly licensed digital textbooks. The bill is a clear effort to work around the broken textbook market and save students money.

But there is a potential problem with this rush to digital resources: new evidence suggests that students’ reading comprehension is often better with print media than its digital equivalent.

“Don’t throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension” will be published in a future issue of Educational Research Review. The article’s authors are Pablo Delgado, Cristina Vargas, and Ladislao Salmerón of the University of Valencia in Spain and Rakefet Ackerman of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

The paper “examined research in recent years (2000-2017), comparing the reading of comparable texts on paper and on digital devices” including two different study designs. Both times, researchers found benefits for paper reading over digital reading, with a few nuances. They found that paper-based reading was especially important in time-constrained settings and that the paper-based reading advantage increased over the years.

They also found that paper and digital reading is equally effective for narrative-only texts (like novels) but not for informational texts (like textbooks). The authors explain, “Comprehending informational texts, compared to narratives, requires higher level processing, such as using complex academic vocabulary and structures, and these texts are less connected to real world knowledge, which makes them harder to comprehend (Graesser & McNamara, 2011).”

Surprisingly, age did not affect reading comprehension across media; young readers do no better with digital reading than older readers, despite the fact that many young readers are “digital natives.”

The authors caution that readers should take this study with a grain of salt. There are limitations to the data set which mean that more analysis is needed. They conclude:

It is clear that digital-based reading is an unavoidable part of our daily lives and an integral part of the educational realm. Although the current results suggest that paper-based reading should be favoured over digital-based reading, it is unrealistic to recommend avoiding digital devices.

Nevertheless, ignoring the evidence of a robust screen inferiority effect may mislead political and educational decisions, and even worse, it could prevent readers from fully benefiting from their reading comprehension abilities and keep children from developing these skills in the first place. Thus, we call on researchers to consider how to guide students and exam takers in dealing with digital tasks such as admission tests (e.g., SAT and GMAT), tasks in work contexts, and school-related tasks that are very often performed with informational texts and under limited time frames.

In particular, an important conclusion from our analysis is that there are predictable conditions that seem to allow media equivalence. It is important to appreciate these conditions, examine their validity for the task at hand, and use them whenever possible and relevant. We hope our meta-analysis will guide evidence-based decisions by policy makers and point designers and researchers toward conditions that support effective digital-based reading.

Despite this evidence, digital resources are here to stay. Web-based learning presents higher education with a huge opportunity. The price, flexibility, and customizability of digital course materials make them appealing to universities, faculty, and students. But like any innovation, they should be tested and implemented incrementally. Moving forward, users should simply take care when adopting such media. Digital materials should not be treated as a one-size-fits-all solution to rising textbook costs.

Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.