Digital vs physical textbooks for equality in classroom

Textbooks, Feb. 13, 2020.

During exam weeks, it is not surprising to find hundreds of students crammed into Newman Library, hunched over notes and laptops. Though there are thousands of books available on our shelves, we as students may not take advantage of the resources presented to us offline. Print copies have been shown to have positive effects in terms of concentration and memory, but online versions allow ease of access for many more people. Along with this debate, there is the issue of students being laden with required textbooks, costing hundreds of dollars every semester. Considering all these factors, it is important to analyze to what extent our lives should be driven by electronic media, and what we may lose out by sidelining physical print.

Man has recorded the knowledge of generations in standard books since around the 15th century. Many times physical books have been pitted against digital versions, suggesting they are competitors. Holding a physical book comes with a sense of ownership, along with greater connection to the senses of touch, smell and feel. In studies carried out on young children, it was found that “those who read print comprehended more than those who read an eBook on an iPad.” This could be due to lack of concentration when reading digital media, as people are more likely to take shortcuts and skip parts of passages. However, in other studies, it is noted that passages carefully made to support reading digitally compare similarly in comprehension levels to physical print. This competition of sorts does not have to be the case, though, as the two can offer a variety of choices for the readers’ differing needs. Libraries nowadays try to strike a balance between digital and print, though it is difficult to manage with the publisher’s needs. Digital media can also provide more room for non-traditional publishers, which would allow for lower prices for users.

Being a student brings a lot of responsibility, along with tuition and fees. Compounding this fact is the numerous textbooks students are required to buy for classes. But why is there such little choice when it comes to the medium we can learn from? In short, it is a matter of simple economics. Publishers take a large amount of the profit made from textbooks, so they are incentivized to raise prices. They can do this without much strain due to limited competition, along with the required nature of these textbooks. Many students grudgingly shell out the money needed for this, while others throw up their hands and refuse to buy any textbooks.

Freshman general engineering student Ghassan Fakhreddine had his own two cents to add to the debate: “I don’t think it’s fair that we have to buy books on top of tuition. At some point it becomes too expensive, and some can’t afford it … An e-book doesn’t really feel like a real book; there is no urge to pick it up because of the availability.”

So what options are there for us moving forward? Some colleges are starting to offer open source educational materials instead of traditional textbooks, allowing students access at a fraction of the cost. However, this is still a very new concept, with very few colleges participating. It seems that buying used books may be the only choice left, but if allowed, borrowing from the local library could provide a much-needed alternative. 

The internet age has provided us with many new avenues to learn and acquire information during our studies. The unfortunate reality of textbook costs highlights how newer systems should be implemented to address student needs, and that print still holds an important place in academia. No matter which medium you choose, it is certain that students will have to hit the books one way or another.

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