Do E-books Help or Hurt Learning?

E-books have rapidly emerged as the go-to choice for college textbooks. Vice-chancellor of Macquarie University Steve Schwartz argues that e-books “are the format of the academic future,” primarily because “embedding audio and video within text makes the book more interactive. Users can also personalize their learning experience by changing the fonts and font sizes to suit their needs.” Pearson Foundation, the non-profit arm of the textbook publisher Pearson Higher Education, recently reported that the majority of students prefer digital over print books, and a December 2011 study in the United Kingdom found the majority of undergraduate students use e-books.

But popularity does not necessarily indicate success. Are students actually learning effectively from e-books?

There is evidence both for and against the effectiveness of e-books for academic learning—and even for the popularity of e-books among college students. At the University of Rochester, the school bookstore reports that “despite the widespread availability of e-Textbooks, the digital forms of many textbooks are much less popular than the hardcover versions. In practice, students who purchase e-Textbooks generally only do so when the bookstore has run out of hard copies and the student is desperate for the material.”

The discrepancy between the two viewpoints may be caused by the fact that there is disparate and limited research on how often students actually read their course material on e-books and if they benefit from them. There is evidence, for example, that e-books are actually detrimental to in-depth learning. The same study that reported on UK students also pointed out that these same students prefer traditional print books over e-books as their main resource. One recent study of the difference between reading and studying with e-books and traditional print books found that

  • More repetition was required with computer [or e-book] reading to impart the same information.
  • Book readers seemed to digest the material more fully: they “knew” the material rather than “remembered” it, meaning that information was assimilated into their own body of knowledge.
  • However, the same study also pointed out that “when the exact same material is presented in both media, there is no measurable difference in student performance.”

Such contradictory information suggests that more formal and extensive research is necessary before we get a true sense of whether or not students learn effectively with e-books. One such recent academic investigation that compared the performance of first-year college students when using e-books and print textbooks showed positive results for e-books and e-readers. In A Nook or a Book? Comparing College Students’ Reading Comprehension Levels, Critical Reading, and Study Skills, researchers Jordan T. Schugar, Heather Schugar and Christian Penny at West Chester University of Pennsylvania found that

  • “Students in both the Nook and the traditional text groups did not significantly differ in terms of their recall of idea units, their inclusion of supporting details, or the level of their text comprehension.”
  • E-book readers and print readers did not show a significant difference in the comprehension of material
  • The level of complexity in student responses was not affected by the medium on which students learned material.

Though recognizing some of the limitations of this particular study (the subject group was small, self-selected, and enrolled in a course that was required and of low-interest to them), it shows that students can learn very well if an e-book is the medium they use to read assigned texts.

Is Reading Itself the Problem?

The problem, then, may not be whether or not reading an e-book is a good way to learn, but whether or not reading is even occurring. In the past several years, many studies have shown that students at all levels of education are more resistant to reading in general, and that the skills that reading helps develop have declined sharply. This applies whether the reading is for a course or as a leisure activity. In my own classes, I am always shocked at how many students tell me that they “hate to read” or, when I ask them the name of the book they last read, they cannot name even one. My experiences are echoed by community college faculty interviewed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. One professor said,

“My experience with college students suggests to me that their critical skills are diminishing; they can’t make connections or see issues and events in terms of systems, prior choices, or institutions. Instead, any item/event is the equivalent of any other item/event. It is quickly displaced or disconnected from other items/events, and just part of a massive flow. Students don’t read books. They rarely read long articles. When they do read, they don’t read for arguments. Instead, they skim the middles of pages, perhaps moving their eyes up and down if something interests them. They don’t work on retaining what little they read, or even seem to think that taking notes is necessary.”

The problem, therefore, may not be the use of e-books or e-readers at all, but one rooted in the general disenchantment with reading that most students seem to exhibit. With so many options for entertainment and leisure time, including brief and superficial reading activities such as texting, curling up with a good book may not be first—or even fifth—choice. Unfortunately, at this point it is impossible to determine the quality of learning through e-books because e-books are so new that studies are recent, limited, and short-term—and because reading itself is a challenging activity to measure.

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