Digital textbooks shouldn’t leave print in the dust

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Physical textbooks aren’t just a relic of past learning styles—they remain a valuable resource for post-secondary students faced with rapid modernization.

Pearson, the world’s largest academic publisher, recently announced its decision to prioritize digital learning resources over print. Beginning in the US university market and expected to spread worldwide, Pearson intendeds to phase out hard-copy textbooks in favour of expanding e-textbook subscriptions.

Pearson’s transition does not keep the best interests of students in mind.

The company will still offer physical textbooks, but only on a rental basis, and at almost double the cost of an equivalent online publication.

These digital textbooks will be updated regularly to reflect current advances in their respective subjects. However, Pearson’s paper textbooks will be updated on a sporadic and infrequent basis.

This new policy demonstrates a complete disregard for the many students and institutions that rely on printed copies.

Pearson’s new model hinges on the assumption that students will prefer subscription-based online access to physical publications. While it’s true e-textbooks might offer a lower upfront cost, they also place a financial burden on students: online resources are worthless without laptops and tablets to read them.

For students unable to afford a computer or without internet access outside school, e-textbooks aren’t an equitable solution. These students will be forced to rent physical textbooks at a higher price—if they can afford to—or go without the texts they need for their courses.

Even those who can pay to access print textbooks won’t have equal access to the most updated academic information, leaving low-income and rural students at a distinct disadvantage.

Moreover, the price of physical textbooks is often offset by the ability to sell the textbook after completing the course.

Many universities have prolific textbook resale communities, allowing new students to purchase cheaper used books and upper-year students to pocket some extra money.

Pearson’s new rental and subscription-based system will render these communities obsolete. Students will have no means of making back any of the money they spend on these subscriptions.

Price aside, e-textbooks are less beneficial for learning. Research shows that,when reading exceeds a page in length, students better comprehend information presented in print than on a screen. With more studies finding that limiting screen time in youth contributes to higher mental performance and better sleep, cutting back on physical textbooks is a step backwards.

Post-secondary students should be able to choose the form of textbook that best suits their learning and lifestyle.

While printed textbooks might not follow technological trends, they still have a place in our increasingly digital world.

—Journal Editorial Board

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