When it comes to textbooks, research has shown higher education students feel print is easier to use, but they’ll buy digital materials if those are cheaper. That prompted three economics faculty members at the University of Idaho, Moscow, to dig deeper into what compels an undergraduate to choose electronic textbooks over traditional paper ones.
Their findings, published in the spring issue of The American Economist journal, revealed that students who purchase e-textbooks share a number of characteristics.
For one, they are more likely to be paying for their education through scholarships and loans, which indicates they may need to watch their budget. Students who had attended larger high schools, typically in more urban areas, also were more apt to buy e-textbooks in college, evidently because they had more exposure to this medium than students who went to smaller and presumably more resource-strapped schools.
Almost 93% of the student respondents in the Idaho survey owned a laptop computer, and not quite 40% of them owned a desktop computer, either in addition to the laptop or in place of it. However, a much higher percentage of the desktop owners had bought a digital textbook than the laptop-only owners, although it’s not clear exactly why. The reasons may have to do with screen size and Internet connectivity.
Not surprisingly, students indicated their professors’ attitude toward e-textbooks was a big factor. If the professor recommended or encouraged students to use the digital version of a book, they were more likely to do so.
In the College of Business and Economics, some 80% of the students had used an e-textbook—partly because, the research team discovered, more business/economics courses were adopting course materials available only in an electronic format. E-textbook purchases were also higher among students in science, engineering, and agriculture studies than other majors.
To a lesser extent, age and gender played roles as well, with younger and female students more likely to buy electronic textbooks.
However, there is one undermining facet to the Idaho study: It was conducted in November 2009, prior to the launch of the iPad and the ensuing flood of tablets on the market. The researchers acknowledge that tablets could have a major impact on digital textbooks. Also, since 2009, textbook publishers have greatly expanded their catalogs of digital course materials and ancillary services.