In an e-reader era, students prefer paper
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Over the last four years, textbook prices increased four times faster than inflation -- 22 percent overall, according to the Student Public Interest Research Groups.
So wouldn't most college students returning to classes this fall be downloading e-textbooks to save money?
Not so fast.
"What we're actually finding is that the e-books that the major publishers have been offering are actually very limited and don't save students that much money," said Nicole Allen, textbooks advocate with the Student PIRGs.
And when e-books are available, studies show that most students still prefer using print books for a number of reasons, despite the fact that the sale of e-book readers in general is taking off.
The share of American adults who own e-readers doubled from 6 percent to 12 percent between November 2010 to May 2011, according to a Pew Internet Project survey.
The tablet market hasn't seen quite the same growth, but Apple has sold more than 28 million iPads since the device debuted in April 2010, leading the tablet pack.
Seton Hill University, a Catholic liberal arts college in Greensburg, became the first university in the country to give incoming freshmen iPads in 2010 and did so again this year.
"We saw it as a game-changing-type device," said Phil Komarny, vice president for information technology at Seton Hill. "Some students have gotten to put most of their books, if not all their books, on their iPads."
"It will not only be a note-taking device but also serve as the textbooks for the students," the university said in a press release announcing the program last year. "They will have the opportunity to download their textbooks to the iPad from the iBook Store."
But most students nationwide still are using print textbooks, despite their rising costs. Students at four-year public colleges spent an average of $1,137 on books and supplies during the 2010-11 school year, according to the College Board.
Publishers often alter textbooks with each new edition, sometimes rendering the previous year's text useless. Texts in some disciplines can cost well over $100.
But unlike paper textbooks, electronic versions often expire at the end of the semester, preventing students from reselling them. There are often digital rights management restrictions on e-book access and printing that restrict sharing.
For example, Amazon offers "Principles of Economics," a standard introductory economics textbook by John Taylor and Akila Weerapana, in hardcover for $181.50 and on Amazon's Kindle e-book reader for $155.96.
CafeScribe, a service that offers electronic textbooks, sells a 180-day subscription for the same book for $113.48 but limits printing and copying/pasting to 30 percent of total pages and allows subscribers access on only three devices. Plus, after 180 days, customers are left with nothing to resell or refer back to.
"Our research actually shows that most students prefer to use a print book over a digital one if they have the option," Ms. Allen said.
A paper released in May by researchers at the University of Washington supports that claim.
First-year computer science and engineering graduate students at the University of Washington received Amazon's top-of-the-line Kindle DX e-reader loaded with all textbooks and required readings. Researchers monitored students' reading habits for a year.
Their findings showed that students preferred different reading technologies for different types of reading, and most used a combination of technologies to get their work done.
"There is no single reading technology that does it all," said Alexander Thayer, principal author of the paper and a graduate student in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the university. "What we know about academic reading is that it's more complex than an e-reader can support as currently designed.
"This rush to replace paper in schools, I think, is a bit premature."
For example, readers develop physical memories when they read printed texts -- they recall where certain ideas appear spatially in the text, enabling them to feel their way through a book to recall a particular equation or idea. Using e-readers and tablets eliminates this spatial text map.
Readers also found the Kindle DX insufficient for marking up texts -- a practice used by 75 percent of students interviewed in the study.
Timothy Trimble, 20, of Woodland Hills, a student in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, decided to purchase a used intro information technology print textbook even though it was available for the Kindle for the same price.
"It seemed like a better idea for me to buy the used one because then I could resell it," he said in an interview Thursday. The IT text was the only one of his textbooks available electronically this semester. He has a Kindle, a laptop and a smart phone and said he wouldn't mind doing his reading on-screen if it was cost-effective.
While most local college students interviewed this week said they still use paper, some have adopted e-books.
"You don't have to carry books, which saves your back," said Carl Makkar, 19, of Wexford, a sophomore studying pre-pharmacy at Duquesne University. He opted to buy a reference text for a required history class electronically instead of buying it in print and would use more e-books if more texts were available electronically.
Thomas Randall, a freshman studying engineering at Pitt, has a Kindle but hasn't found many of his engineering textbooks on it.
"It would be a lot cheaper if [they were] on Kindle," said Mr. Randall, 18, of Monroeville. "Plus it would be a lot lighter to carry all of them around."
First Published September 3, 2011 12:00 am