Not long ago, a college textbook was quite literally that – a physical book. As technology advances, the physical textbook is undergoing dramatic changes.

The landscape for incoming college students and their parents is constantly shifting. How students both consume and pay for their educational resources is evolving, as well. A few years ago, students would hit up their parents for sofas, tables, pots and pans, in addition to some cash for books. Today, students require iPads and laptops for digital integration in the classroom. As with any change, there are pros and cons to this movement.

The Bring Your Own Device trend for students has been growing over the past few years. Educators and universities have found that the curricula for these devices is also trending upwards. This, in turn, has overhauled the way textbooks are seen in school settings and how it figures into a more technological classroom.

Here’s a look at three pieces of this new reality for students and their textbooks:


College has never been cheap, with textbooks accounting for a large chunk of expenses outside of tuition. The steadily surging costs of required course materials are dramatic. Most parents and students feel the damage to their wallets when purchasing books at the beginning of each semester, but many dismiss it as just part of the college package. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index data, there has been an 812 percent rise in the price of textbooks and course materials since 1978, and costs are still rising every year.

It comes as no surprise that approximately one in three students elect not to purchase required textbooks because of their hefty price tags. This decision may help their bank accounts, but it can wreak havoc on academic performance. Cost has become a barrier to learning, and students have been frequently left with no choice but to pay the exorbitant fees or go without necessary materials. This is where digital textbooks and technology come in.


As many colleges seek to transition toward completely digitally-driven curricula, converting traditional textbooks into a digital format is becoming more commonplace. Some universities are going entirely digital, with requirements about devices varying from institution to institution. Florida Lynn University goes so far as to require freshmen to purchase an iPad Mini, while the Illinois Institute of Technology actually gives iPads to each of its freshman undergraduate students. With textbook costs ever rising, digital books and instruction via laptops and mobile devices simply makes economical sense.

The transition is not without its growing pains. Parents and students frequently object to the cost of equipment through which digital textbooks are delivered, complaining they are more expensive than it would be to merely purchase books. However, many colleges and bookstores offer lease-to-own programs, rentals and used laptops and devices, so even the most cash-strapped students can typically find a way to gain access to the necessary devices. Also, most libraries give students the ability to use their computers free of charge, so this opposition can be easily overcome.


Although the evolution – and revolution – of textbooks into a 21st century format holds numerous benefits, it is still a long road to total adoption. The U.S. Department of Education and the FCC believe so strongly in digital textbooks that they published a 67-page guide to help schools transfer away from physical books in the hopes that all students in America will use digital course materials in the coming five years. But while the government supports this side of the argument, a recent survey found that 88 percent of professors still favor (and require) traditional textbooks.

Students surprisingly appear to be more aligned with their instructors in this debate, with another study revealing that only 13 percent of college students would rather use digital textbooks than the physical books of old. It’s important to note, however, that this number is rising. What it ultimately comes down to is familiarity. The more professors open up to digital textbooks and e-learning avenues, the more accustomed students will become, as well. As with any type of change, there is a learning curve and a temporary period of adjustment before the value makes itself known.

Regardless of the prevailing sentiments, digital textbooks are here to stay. Parents and students would be wise to research the best options, based on factors like price, specifications by professor, and personal learning preferences. There has never been a one-size-fits-all teaching and learning approach, and it’s important to remember this. Technology is here to improve upon the status quo, and should be maximized whenever possible and practical. However, it is ultimately the student who will be doing the learning and therefore the it is the student who needs to decide if e-reading suits him or her best.