College Students Now Prefer Reading Digital Books to Print, Survey Finds


3.22.12 | Tablet ownership among college students and college-bound high school students has more than tripled since last year, according to poll results released last week.

The Pearson Foundation’s second-annual Survey on Students and Tablets polled 1,206 college students and 204 high school seniors about their tablet ownership and usage. The survey found that a majority of college students now prefer reading digital books rather than print, a reversal of last year’s results, and many believe tablets are just as valuable for educational purposes as they are for personal entertainment.

The survey release coincided with last week’s launch of the new Apple iPad, which triggered a buzz around tablets and their roles both in and out of the classroom.

Twenty-five percent of college students surveyed said they owned a tablet, compared to just 7 percent in 2011. More than two-thirds of those surveyed last year agreed that tablets would change the way students learn, even though more than 90 percent said they did not own tablets themselves.

According to 2012 survey results (pdf), students are beginning to invest more in the digital medium. More than a third said they planned to buy a tablet sometime in the next six months, and 63 percent said they believe tablets will replace textbooks in the next five years.

Looking closer at readership of digital books, here are some of the findings:

  • Seven in 10 college students (70%) have read digital textbooks, compared to 62% a year ago.
  • Six in 10 high school seniors (58%) have read digital textbooks, compared to 41% a year ago.
  • Among those students who had previously read a digital textbook, eight in 10 college students (81%) and two-thirds of high school seniors (66%) have read a digital textbook this school year (since September 2011).
  • Almost six in 10 college students prefer a digital format when reading books for fun (57%) or textbooks for class (58%), while one-third say that they prefer print. This trend can be seen among high school seniors as well, and is mostly driven by an increase in the preference to use tablets for reading.

Other studies have found that e-textbooks still face several obstacles to overcome before digital textbook distribution models become mainstream on college campuses.

One such study published late last year in Educause Quarterly described Daytona State College’s two-year comparative study of four textbook distribution models: print purchase, print rental, e-text rental, and e-text rental with e-reader device. Interestingly, it found students often preferred to rent printed textbooks. One student mentioned that she liked “the simplicity of just picking the book up, at any time, anywhere, but not with all the additives.”

The study also considered specific concerns—including faculty choice, student technological skills, and cost savings—that institutions considering campus-wide e-text adoption may need to address. The “What We Learned” section breaks down findings by model, and it’s an interesting read.

When it comes to e-texts and millennials, the study’s authors—Benjamin Graydon and Cheryl Kohen of Daytona State College and evaluation consultant Blake Urbach-Buholz—made this observation:

Although our expectation that older study participants would be least receptive to this model held true, some younger students expressed a similar degree of discontent. They commented on the “hidden costs of the e-text,” which included computer access, web access, and (sometimes) printing, and they noticed the digital divide between “disadvantaged” students whose home environment was not “resource rich” and “advantaged” students with convenient, reliable, around-the-clock web access. Finding the time to study was not enough; students also needed to be in the right location.

That observation is an important reminder that learning usually requires more than a new shiny tool.



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