Print is Dead?


Growing up in the suburbs of Montréal I was gainfully employed as a morning newspaper delivery-boy by the Montreal Gazette.  The hours were contemptible but the money more than made up for it – especially during the holiday season.  Every morning, aided by my father – or perhaps vice versa – we would gather, count, sort, and prepare the newspapers before heading out into the cold.  One particular morning, while riding our bikes to the desired neighborhood, my father and I had a fairly cerebral conversation – especially considering the hour – surrounding what we believed would be the future of newspapers.  I had recently purchased a CD-ROM drive for my computer and my father and I were amazed at the storage capacity the device afforded.  Microsoft Encarta, a digital encyclopedia replete with rich colour graphics, video and audio clips, further fueled our enthusiasm for the digital medium.  We concluded that, in all likelihood, newspapers would cease to exist on a printed page but would be distributed in digital format via CD-ROM discs.  While we were correct in our vision of an era of digital information becoming the new standard means of distribution, little did we know then that the Internet, yet to be unleashed on the populous at large, had plans to cut out the middle-man.


As McKiernan (2011) and Hawkins (2001) point out, digital textbooks have existed for well over a decade ago when publishers and vendors began experimenting with proprietary means of creating digital titles for the educational market.  Still in its’ absolute infancy, with no customers to take advantage of, or even understand, the possibilities of the digital textbooks, the field stayed relatively dormant until very recently.  The twenty-first century student has different expectations and needs than did those of past generations.  High-speed internet, tablet computers, and smart-phones have changed both the ways and speed at which they learn.

The Weight of the World

In an age where video games and digital entertainment are slowly replacing traditional pastimes of previous generations and obesity and diabetes rates are on the rise, it is interesting to learn that physical constraints are being put on books.  With textbook weights exceeding seven pounds for science courses, students are too often over-burdened with books.  Baumann (2010) reports that as of 2004, “the California Department of Education capped the weight of textbooks at five pounds for high school students because of back injuries” (p.1).  While the physical toll of carrying around heavy texts has its effect on the body, the financial toll introduced in higher education can be just as devastating.

The cost of the majority of course textbooks used in post secondary education generally exceeds seventy-five dollars (McFadden, 2012).  According to Paula (2011), Mulvihill (2011) and Baumann (2010), the average cost of required textbooks and materials for a typical undergraduate degree is likely to exceed $1,137.  It comes then, as no surprise that given the fiscal responsibilities of tuition and living expenses that 64% of students polled claimed that they were simply unable to afford the cost of the high cost required textbooks for the studies.  McMichael (2011) notes that “the adoption of an electronic curriculum not only saves money by removing the need to buy new textbooks periodically, but it also does away with the costs of maintaining and replacing lost or damaged print-based material” (p. 2).  While the cost of traditional textbooks might seem somewhat inflated, the publishers themselves receive only a fraction of potential revenue of sales as many Universities offer to buy-back used textbooks and resell them, keeping the proceeds of these sales for themselves.  Online, or digital textbooks however, would render the second-hand textbook market obsolete.  With no physical textbook to resell, the market would simply cease to exist.

In addition to maintaining preferable profit margins for themselves, the cost required to produce a digital textbook is significantly diminished as well.  These savings are passed, to a certain extent, on to the consumer as a digital textbook average costs on average, according to Mulvihill (2011), 40% of the cost of a traditional bound textbook (p.1).  While many sources support the fact that digital textbooks still only account for 3% of total textbook sales, that number is likely to increase dramatically over the course of the next few years as digital tablet computers become progressively accepted and used by students (McFadden, 2012; McKiernan, 2011; Mulvihill, 2011; Weisberg, 2011; Baumann, 2010; Rivero, 2010).  While the cost of digital textbooks is an attractive characteristic, it is not the driving factor responsible for the adoption of the new technology.

Gimme’ gimme’ gimme’.

In our contemporary digital society, speed is everything.  No matter how insignificant an improvement, faster is regarded as being better.  The digital native learner of today craves, above all else, speed – and digital textbooks are set to deliver en masse.

In 2001, Libbin wrote that “over 62% of students say they would choose an electronic textbook over a new print textbook, given that the e-textbook had certain features” (p.2).  The most desirable feature listed: video capabilities.  Perhaps students at the turn of the millennia were as enamored with the Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM’s video capabilities as I was a few years prior.  Today’s student want speed: they want to read more quickly, search more quickly, and learn at a faster rate.  Digital textbooks afford this luxury as the search or keywords is easily accomplished much in the same way as performing an internet-based search.  Readers can swiftly pinpoint references directly suited at their current unit of study.

The physical constraints levied by the California Department of Education are rendered null and void as the weight of a digital library, let alone one book, is that of the device used to store the books themselves.  As such, a one-pound tablet computer could figuratively and literally store tons of books without ever increasing in weight.  Additionally, the ecologically-conscious student would also be helping to reduce their carbon-footprint.  As Rivera (2010) explains, “three times more raw materials and seventy-eight time more water are used in the production of a single printed book” (p.6).

With the evolving technology of digital textbooks and newfound abilities and possibilities of modifying, annotating and customizing digital textbooks by professors and students alike, the divide between printed and digital is narrowing.  Students can just as easily highlight their digital texts as they could a traditional book – with no permanent damage done to the original.  Some digital textbooks offer social-media integration as a means to create virtual study groups and online discussion from across the globe.  The opportunities afforded by the digital textbook are as limitless as the imagination of those who choose to use them.  As the technology continues to develop, new applications and resources will undoubtedly come into play and further revolutionize digital learning experiences.


While market trends and analyses all support the notion of digital textbooks being on the cusp of overthrowing their printed brethren, it is worth noting that, according to Wisenberg (2011), 71% of students would use a digital textbook on a computer as a secondary textbook and only 29% of students would use a tablet as a primary textbook.  In both cases, students still much preferred the traditional textbook to the electronic alternative.  As Bolter (2011) fittingly states, “in this late age of print, the two technologies, print and electronic writing, still need each other” (p. 46).  In all likelihood, electronic textbooks will prove to be just one option as opposed to a wholesale replacement of printed textbooks.  Wisenberg (2011) also notes that in a higher education setting, there were no significant differences in test scores between students who favoured digital textbooks and those who opted for the traditional printed text.  This finding is further reinforced by Milone’s (2011) study regarding reading comprehension levels of elementary school children.  While no differences were found to exist, 62% of students preferred using a digital tablet version of the book to the “real” thing which could indicate an emerging trend in for student preference.  In fact, before the October 23rd launch of the Apple iPad mini, most pundits assumed that the device was created to fill a void in the textbook consumer market.  As the iPad itself is the most commonly used tablet computer, it is surmised that Apple is attempting to position itself as the leading hardware vendor for digital textbooks.

With no apparent tangible learning advantages to either learning medium, it’s simply a matter of personal choice.  While the digital nature of the electronic textbook is very appealing to some, and becoming increasingly appealing to more as they become aware that a choice even exists, there is still something to be said about holding a book in your hands, running your finger over the words, and actually turning a page.


McFadden, C. (2012). Are textbooks dead? Making sense of the digital transition, Publishing Research Quarterly, 28 (2), 93-99

Bolter, J. D. (2011). Writing as technology. Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print (2nd ed., pp. 14–26). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hane, P.J. (2011).  Etextbook space heats up, Information Today, 28 (10), 10

McMichael, C.J. (2011) Electronic resource and Etextbooks in the high school curriculum, Internet@Schools, 18 (4), 8 -12

McKiernan, G. (2011).  Configuring the ‘future textbook’, Searcher, 19 (4) 43-47

Milone, M. (2011).  Student comprehension of books in Kindle and traditional formats.  Renaissance Learning

Mulvihill, A. (2011).  Etextbooks: Coming of age, Information Today, 28 (8), 34-36

Weisberg, M. (2011).  Student attitudes and behaviours towards digital textbooks, Publishing Research Quarterly, 27 (2) 188-196

Baumann, M. (2010).  Ebooks: A new school of though, Information Today, 27 (5), 44-48

Rivero, V. (2010).  E is for explosion, Multimedia & Internet@Schools,  17 (4), 8-14

Hawkins, D.T. (2001).  Etextbooks gaining ground in print space, Information Today, 24 (2), 10-11

Libbin, J. (2001).  E-books face slow road to adoption, but e-textbooks may not be far, DSN Retailing Today, 40 (3), 21-23


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