Feasibility of E-textbooks

Kress (2005) noted that “the once dominant paper-based media – the newspaper and the book above all – are giving way to the screen” (p. 17).  This phenomenon has made its way into the classroom as educators must choose between a traditional textbook or an electronic textbook (e-text) for their students.  While e-texts provide access to current content and offer students a more immersive experience consisting of images and video clips, the medium also changes the way in which students interact with the material.

Increased Flexibility

As noted by Kress (2005), the order of the printed book is “firmly coded” (p. 7) as the author has determined how the reader should progress through the material.  On a web page or in an e-text, however, the reader is in control and can “fashion their own knowledge” (Kress, 2005, p. 10) based on how they choose to progress through the material.  The reader’s active role in the electronic reading process has resulted in text that offers “greater chances for individual participation and interactivity” (Fornaciari, 2009, p. 648).

The e-text offers additional advantages such as the ability to include more images, video clips, animation and links to supplemental material.  Instead of being static, the text, as noted by Bolter (2001) is “interactive” and facilitates the “reader’s journey through the text” (p. 68).  The structure of an e-text may be more appealing to a young generation which is comfortable with non-linear or multilinear reading and who “have not developed a strong relationship with traditional paper texts” (Fornaciari, 2009, p. 645).

Incorporating current events into e-text content is accomplished more easily than a traditional textbook.  This capability is a decided advantage in Business courses where changes in the economy, unemployment figures, import and export data and business scandals occur regularly.

Cost and Environmental Considerations

Data suggests that e-texts are less expensive than paper textbooks.  Dillon (2007) concluded that the cost of a printed book ranged from $3.24 to $28.57 (as cited in Bunkell & Dyas-Correia, 2009).  Online publisher Elsevier noted that the initial cost of online books ranged from $0.25 to $4.80 per book and “there are lower ongoing costs for online books than for print, and the total cost per use decreases with each passing year” (Bunkell & Dyas-Correia, 2009, p. 216).  Given the current trend toward declining secondary school enrolment and cutbacks in government funding, e-texts could represent a cost-saving strategy for school boards.

When comparing traditional textbooks and e-texts, one must also examine the environmental impact of paper textbooks and e-texts.  A study by Moberg, Borggren & Finnveden (2011) concluded there are situations where the e-text is more environmentally-friendly and others where the paper textbook is better.  In a study of 17,000 pages of text, Moberg et al. (2011) noted that the e-book (when read on an e-reader) was more environmentally-friendly than the paper book in areas including “resources used, global warming, energy, eutrophication, human toxicity, marine aquatic ecotoxicity and terrestrial ecotoxicity” (p. 242).  While the paper book had a considerably higher “cumulative energy demand” (Moberg et al., 2011, p. 242) than the e-book, it was better “in terms of acidification, ozone depletion, freshwater aquatic ecotoxicity and photochemical ozone creation” (Moberg et al., 2011, p. 242).

Student Impact

While a recent study comparing e-texts to traditional paper textbooks found no difference in the mark achieved in a course or the overall learning outcome (Shepperd et al., 2008), there are differences in student usage and reading patterns.  Kress (2005) noted that the screen is the “contemporary canvas” (p. 18) and since the image is prominent, the “practices of reading becoming dominant are the practices derived from the engagement with [the] image” (p. 18).  Despite the importance of the image, however, Woody et al. (2008) noted that many e-texts are simply electronic versions of their paper counterparts.

Studies have indicated that individuals read electronic text differently than printed text.  Bolter (2001) noted that “electronic readers therefore shuttle between two nodes of reading, or rather they learn to read in a way that combines verbal and picture reading” (p. 68).  Studies by Nielson (1997) and Rho & Gedeon (2000) concluded that “readers skim[med] computer-based text more often than paper-based text” (as cited in Woody, Daniel & Baker, 2010, p. 945).  Nielson (2006) identified that individuals read “e-text in an F-pattern, searching for key terms rather than reading line by line” (as cited in Woody et al., 2010, p. 945).  In addition, despite being frequent computer users for other activities, Young (2001) noted that students believed that “reading from a computer fe[lt] disjointed” (as cited in Shepperd et al., 2008, p. 2).

Access is another significant difference between the two options as students require a computer, tablet or e-book reader to use the e-texts.  Unlike a printed text, a problem with computer access may result in the material being unavailable to the student.  In a study by Shepperd et al. (2008), students rated the convenience of electronic textbooks unfavourably.


Even though e-texts have the potential to provide a richer student experience through the use of current material, images, audio, video clips and hypertext, Shepperd et al. (2008) noted that only one-third of students who used an e-text indicated that they would purchase one again.  Kress (2005) posited that “reading has to be rethought” (p. 17) in this new era of multimodality.  Given the differences in student reading strategies between paper textbooks and e-texts, one cannot simply digitize a paper text.  E-texts must be designed to ensure students are effectively engaged and are receiving the greatest benefit from the material.


Bolter, J. D. (2001).  Writing space: Computers, hypertext and the remediation of print [2nd edition].  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bunkell, J. & Dyas-Correia, S. (2009). E-books vs. print: Which is the better value? The Serials Librarian, 56. 215-219. doi:10.1080/03615260802698283

Fornaciari, F. (2009).  Digital hypertexts vs. traditional books: An inquiry into non-linearity.  International Journal of Social and Human Sciences, 3.  Retrieved from https://www.waset.org/journals/ijshs/v3/v3-94.pdf

Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition, 22(1), 5-22. Retrieved October 27, 2012 from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2004.12.004

Moberg, Å., Borggren, C., & Finnveden, G. (2011). Books from an environmental perspective – Part 2: ebooks as an alternative to paper books. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 16. 238-246. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11367-011-0255-0

Shepperd, J.A., Grace, J.L., & Koch, E.J. (2008). Evaluating the electronic textbook: Is it time to dispense with the paper text? Teaching of Psychology, 35(1), 2-5.  doi:10.1080/00986280701818532

Woody, W.D., Daniel, D.B., & Baker, C.A. (2010).  E-books or textbooks: Students prefer textbooks.  Computers & Education, 55(3), 945-948. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2010.04.005

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1 Response to Feasibility of E-textbooks

  1. cmck says:

    Hi Deborah,
    That was a great commentary on e-texts. Last week, I had to present some of the benefits, detriments, and potentials of e-texts to our department heads to begin a discussion about using them in our school. I made many of the same points as you did, but I didn’t know that students are more likely to skim when reading an e-text. I can envision that happening, though.

    I’ve talked with students at other schools who use e-texts. Keep in mind that my sample size is very small and the group is not indicative of most students, but what I’ve tended to find is that the students don’t like the e-texts at first because the e-texts are different than physical books. However, after they get used to the change they either don’t care which format the text is presented in, or they much preferred the e-texts. They tended not to care when the e-text was just a PDF of the regular text, but they preferred the e-texts when they made use of multimedia, hypertext, and constructivist-based tools.

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