Today’s college students have grown up in a digital world, so one might expect that most of them would prefer e-textbooks to print on paper, but that’s not the case according to a new survey conducted by Direct Textbook, a free textbook price comparison service. The survey reports that 62% of college students prefer print textbooks to e-textbooks.
This represents a 10% decline in print textbook preference since 2015, when 72% of students reported favoring print textbooks, but it doesn’t mean students are embracing e-textbooks. Despite the growing e-textbook market, student preference for e-textbooks increased by just 2% from 2015 (27%) to 2021 (29%), while the number of students who have no preference increased by nearly 8% over that same period.
Students who prefer print textbooks say they are easier to read and that they have trouble concentrating on e-textbooks. They also like that no internet is required. And 25% say they end up printing e-textbook pages anyway. Even those who have no preference say printed textbooks are easier to read and annotate, and are easier to learn from. Among students who prefer e-textbooks, 70% say the reason for their preference is that e-textbooks are environmentally friendly, a common misconception.
“The miniaturization of today’s electronic devices along with the ‘invisible’ nature of digital infrastructure and cloud-based services cause many to vastly underestimate the environmental impacts of electronic communication,” says Two Sides North America President Kathi Rowzie. “Most are surprised when they learn the facts.”
The environmental footprint of electronic communication includes the mining of finite raw materials like iron, copper and rare earth minerals to produce electronic devices, massive amounts of predominantly fossil fuel energy to manufacture and operate those devices and the server farms that support them, and an enormous and growing amount of e-waste. According to the 2020 Global E-Waste Monitor, only 15% of e-waste in the United States and Canada gets recycled.
“Compared with paper, the contrast is remarkable,” Rowzie says. “Paper is made with an infinitely renewable resource – trees grown, harvested and regrown in sustainably managed forests – using mostly renewable, carbon-neutral energy. The paper industry recycles more than 95% of its primary processing chemicals, and cleans and returns more than 90% of the water it uses to the environment, with the rest evaporating back into the atmosphere or remaining in the paper itself. And paper is recycled more than any other material in North America.”
While there are valid reasons that some students prefer e-textbooks over printed textbooks, “environmental friendliness” is not one of them.