There is often the mistaken belief that open textbooks are synonymous with digital textbooks. While most open textbooks are digital (and by being so can be distributed for free as the distribution costs of copying and distributing electronic books is virtually $0), many open textbooks also make low cost printed versiosn of the textbook available for students who prefer print.

Print vs Digital

There is an ongoing debate occuring right now on which format is better - print or digital. Without digging too deeply into the debate (we only have a week after all) I think it is fair to say that we are still in the early stages of a transition from print to digital.

There is some research that shows that when it comes to student preference, print seems to win out over digital. However, it is important to note that most studies which compare print to digital compare a publishers print version to that publishers digital version of the same textbook and fail to take into account that economics may play a factor in the decision as to why students prefer print to digital.

For example, students are still required to pay for digital textbooks from publishers, and while this fee is often smaller than the print version, it is usually for time limited access to that digital textbook, usually for 6 months, At the end of 6 months, students no longer have access to the textbook, and they have no used textbook to sell and recoup the original cost. this economic disincentive to purchase etextbooks from publishers often skews results that show students prefer print over digital.

Support for this notion that finances play a big part in student preference comes from recent studies. Indiana State University doctoral student Jim Johnson conducted research on 200 students, half of who used digital textbooks and half who used traditional print textbooks. The result showed no difference in learning outcomes among the students. Additionally, in focus group interviews after the test, Johnson discovered that students "didn't like the high cost of digital book rental or the inability to resell digital textbooks."

When this economic disincentive is removed, students flock to digital resources. Lindshield & Adhikari (2013) created an electronic textbook (they called it a flexbook) for a Human Nutrition course and found that, even though low cost print on demand versions of the book were available, students (whether on campus or online) overwhelmingly chose the electronic version. Research from Hilton & Laman (2012) shows a similar student preference for electronic vs print, with 62% of students choosing a free online version of the textbook compared to a low cost print on demand version of the same textbook (n=307).

While Lindshield & Adhikari did not look at learning outcomes, it is interesting to note that the studies of Johnson and Hilton & Laman showed no difference in learning outcomes between electronic and print versions of the book.


Both print and digital have positive and negative qualities, or affordances. Digital textbooks, for example, offer cheaper costs, increased interactivity and multimedia elements, and faster book updates. However, design a digital textbook means that these same digital affordances wil be lost for those who prefer print. And, even though use of ebooks is increasing, it is by no means universal or standard. eBook publishing is still very much in the early days of development and, much like the early days of the web, there are conflicting standards and devices that support ebook features to varying degrees.

Basically, we are still in the early days of transition to digital, and in order to make open textbooks available to the widest number of students, you have to consider that some of your students will want print, some will want to read in an eReader, while others will want to read on the web.

Further Reading

Optional Activity & Discussion: Read Like a Digital Student

When it comes to digital textbooks, there are a number of different technical file formats you may come across in the open textbook world. The standard format for digital books is a format called ePub which requires special software or devices to use. If you have never had a reason or opportunity to try eReading software, consider trying it this this week as an optional activity.

In the ePub section of Open Textbook Formats Explained there are links to a number of different ePub software readers. Choose one for your platform or tablet & install it on your computer or tablet. Then, find an ePub version of a textbook (here is a Project Management textbook you can try), download that & read it on your new eReader software reader. Test out some of the built in tools of the eReader, like search and annotation.

Post the experience to the discussion forum. Consider your post a review that others could use if they wanted to replicate your experince. Was the software easy/hard to install? Did you find the interface intuititive? Was it difficult loading an ePub file onto the device? What features of the software do you think would make it appealing to students?

Last modified: Sunday, 13 October 2013, 10:08 PM