What do modern students want in a textbook? Writers want to know.

tablet with ebook in front of stack of print booksI was intrigued by an article in Research Information, a newsletter for libraries and publishers. “The rise and rise of e-reading” discussed the growth in electronic textbooks and articles. As a writer I have been intrigued by the potential for embedding interactive components and live links in texts, but disappointed to find that such materials are more typically relegated to a companion website. In my previous faculty role, I noticed a gap between the university’s enthusiasm for adopting e-books, and my students’ preference for paper textbooks. As a reader, I prefer e-books when I read for enjoyment, but usually like paper when I am working with textbooks. I thought I’d dig a bit more, and share what I discover with you, my fellow writers.

What did publishers say in “The rise and rise of e-reading”?

A few points in the article raised new questions:

  • Vicky Drummond, director of online customer experience at Cambridge University Press, said: “Research data also told us that users have an appetite for reading on the screen, but many will actually download content to consume offline, at a later date.” Nisha Doshi, also of Cambridge, noted that PDF formats are the most popular, so publishers need to figure out how to signpost the presence of embedded content so those who print the chapter know it is there. I wonder how many readers prefer to download book chapters and print them, which is why PDFs are still preferred? Or whether those who print them do so because e-book formats aren’t yet adequate for notetaking and highlighting?
  • The article discusses various e-book formats including sophisticated options that allow an instructor to add notes or links, and basic options that are difficult to re-size, search, or use by visually impaired people. While Doshi noted that PDF formats are most popular, Rich Belanger from ProQuest noted that “PDFs on mobile devices look awful and I think it actually hinders ebook adoption today.”

I wonder how students prefer to use e-textbooks—do they want something they can print out and highlight, or something that links to instructors’ notes, media, and other content? Based on my own experiences with e- and print books, I wonder how much depends on the hardware used to access e-textbooks. Do they want to read on a monitor with space to have the book open, as well as the paper in progress, other sources, as well as a citation manager or other tools, and a keyboard for writing? Or are they trying to study the text on a tablet or ebook reader, or a tiny phone screen? Do readers want to be able to move between formats? The new Kindle, for example, allows me to move back and forth between reading and listening. Is this a feature for future e-books? This point also relates to the rise in proprietary devices and formats. A Kindle e-reader, for example, is great for reading Kindle books, but useless for other formats and limited for linking to other online content.

What do students say about e-textbooks?

Apparently, not a lot. Or at least users’ perspectives do not feature a lot in published articles. I spent several hours combing journal articles to find research on the users’ perspectives. A number of the articles I found were somewhat dated, because let’s face it, the online world of three or four years ago is not the world we are in today. A 2012 survey of academic library users to assess patron attitudes toward e-books from Revelle, Messner, Shrimplin, and Hurst identified four categories of reader opinions:

  • Book lovers have an inherent affinity for the print form
  • Technophiles are strongly interested in the possibilities of new technology for reading
  • Pragmatists are most interested in content and see pros and cons to both formats
  • Printers prefer print books but are distinguished from book lovers in that they have specific difficulties with the usability of e-books

I can’t help but wonder whether these opinions have changed in seven years, and whether the current attention to digital privacy would influence readers’ preferences? Would students studying sensitive topics prefer print books that don’t allow their reading to be tracked?

Keep wondering!

From this perusal my observation is that there is a proverbial gap in the literature about student preferences and patterns of use for electronic textbooks, and about variations of use depending on the book format and hardware used to access it.


Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.