E-Textbooks vs. Regular Textbooks

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E-Textbooks vs. Regular Textbooks
portrait of Staff Writers
by Staff Writers
Published on April 29, 2021

Some students and classes need college textbooks just as much as they need teachers. Nevertheless, rising textbook costs and alternative study options have given learners reason to delay or skip buying physical copies of books altogether.

According to the College Board, the average college student spends more than $400 on course materials each year. In the digital age, many schools and learners have turned to e-textbooks to try and reduce their spending, but digital textbooks may not be for everyone.

Continue reading to weigh your options and determine whether you should buy physical textbooks or e-textbooks for college.

What Is an E-Textbook?

E-textbooks offer the same content as regular college textbooks but in a digital format. You can buy access rights for a book and then read the content on your electronic devices, including computers, smartphones, and e-readers. However, keep in mind that some e-textbooks limit the number of devices that can access a book to reduce security risks and fraudulent activity.

Depending on the type of digital textbook purchased, you may need to connect to the internet to access your book. Alternatively, you may be able to download the material permanently to your device. E-textbooks for college may also require users to download additional applications or visit a specific website for access.

Benefits of E-Textbooks

In general, e-textbooks are more affordable than regular college textbooks. In some cases, digital textbooks may cost 40-50% less than physical copies, although savings are not always this high. Most texts can be viewed with a standard laptop, phone, or e-reader.

E-textbooks can be accessed without lugging around a heavy book or searching around for the proper section. Many digital textbooks offer easy search functions, highlighting options, and copy and paste features, which can make it more convenient to use the material.

While schools try to stock the appropriate amount of college textbooks for their students, learners may find getting regular textbooks challenging — especially for large, popular classes. E-textbooks for college classes don't have this problem.

Drawbacks of E-Textbooks

When using e-textbooks for college, students need their devices to be available and fully functioning. Depending on the book and the publisher, learners may be able to print a limited number of pages, but they usually need their laptop or phone to get the material — this may require access to a power outlet and the internet.

While physical college textbooks only feature content relevant to the subject, e-textbooks reside in electronic devices that can easily access the internet, games, and other distractions. In the classroom, e-textbooks can also present challenges for teachers as they fight for their students' attention. Additionally, although digital textbooks may provide more interactive materials, readers may retain information better from physical texts.

Regular college textbooks often come with a hefty price tag upfront, but students can recoup some of those costs by reselling their used books to bookstores and other learners. E-textbooks make that more challenging, as copyright laws may prohibit the sale of digital copies.

Benefits of Regular Textbooks

When using physical textbooks for college, students may find it easier to focus on the material. In the classroom, these books feature fewer distractions and help learners stay engaged in class discussions and follow along. Studying may also prove more effective, as some students can recall and visualize the page and material better with hard copies.

Traditional textbooks give students reliable study materials that do not depend on electronic devices, battery life, or strong internet connections. In many classes, learners need only their textbook and note-taking materials to be successful. Since teachers typically refer to physical copies of the textbook, students can also follow along easily.

Physical textbooks for college usually cost more than e-textbooks, but learners can find some savings by purchasing used books. Students can also resell their books once they finish a course, or simply rent them in the first place. Check out our guide on renting versus buying textbooks for more information.

Drawbacks of Regular Textbooks

Size and Space

Regular textbooks can take up a great deal of space in a bag, locker, or bookshelf. Students with back-to-back classes may need to carry several heavy books around campus. Additionally, at the end of the school year, it may be difficult to store or transport an accumulated pile of textbooks.

Recalling Information

When studying for a test or preparing an assignment, students often need to refer to specific pages or sections in a textbook. Without highly detailed notes, this may prove challenging for learners with regular college textbooks. E-textbook users, however, can search by word or term to locate sections more quickly.

Increasing Costs

Buying college textbooks can take a toll on a student's wallet, and this problem has steadily gotten worse over time. For example, the price of regular textbooks increased more than 800% between 1978 and 2018. Many classes require students to purchase the most recent edition of a textbook, which can make finding used material difficult.

Which Textbook Is Right For You?

Choosing the right style of textbook depends entirely on your needs, learning style, and study habits. With benefits and drawbacks to both regular college textbooks and e-textbooks, you should consider which type of book best suits your unique situation. Think about your class schedule and classroom locations, and examine the cost and size of your required books.

If you only need a few textbooks, buying physical copies may not be burdensome; however, some students may need multiple books for each class. You should also consider your study style — physical materials and handwritten notes appeal to many students. In the end, the choice may simply come down to preference.

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Feature Image: alejandrophotography / E+ / Getty Images

Read this guide to figure out whether you should rent or buy your textbooks for school, and learn about the best college textbook rental websites. Discover ways to cut costs and find cheap college textbooks. You can also recoup money by selling your used textbooks. Understand the real costs of an online vs. on-campus education to determine which is better for your unique needs and circumstances.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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