Against the backdrop of advances in digital technology, e-book sales have increased rapidly in the last one decade or so. Statistics reveal that e-book sales on Amazon have overtaken printed book sales since 2011 (Daniel & Woody, 2013). At the surface, this could be an indication that college students increasingly prefer e-books over printed books, especially due to the convenience and accessibility offered by the latter. What is more, some studies (e.g., Rockinson-Szapkiw, Wendt & Lunde, 2013) have suggested that e-books may increase students’ motivation to read. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that the growth in e-book sales has not translated into increased preference for e-books over printed books among college students (Kuzma, Kuzma, & Thiewes, 2013; Rowlands et al., 2007). Attention to students’ perceptions of e-books has important implications for higher education students, educators, librarians, and decision makers. Whereas e-books may enhance students’ motivation to read, students generally prefer printed books over e-books for two reasons:
- the reading fatigue associated with e-books;
- e-books may not necessarily be a convenient alternative for printed books.
Reading fatigue can be a challenge for many users of e-books. One of the reasons for ebook-related fatigue is eyestrain (Rockinson-Szapkiw et al., 2013). Spending several hours on a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone may be strenuous to the eyes due to the inherent properties of screen light. The fatigue associated with reading e-books could explain the higher reading time associated with e-books compared to printed books. Daniel and Woody’s (2013) study found that for the same amount of text, students took more time to read an e-book than a printed book. This suggests that reading an e-book imposes an extra burden on students. Reasons for students’ lower preference for e-books compared to printed books go beyond reading fatigue.
Contrary to popular belief, e-books are not necessarily a convenient alternative for printed books. In a study of 329 university students undertaking business courses, only 19% of the participants felt that e-books were more convenient and easier to use than printed books (Kuzma, et al., 2013). More specifically, the majority of the participants said that given cost was the same for both formats, they strongly preferred e-books over printed books due to convenience and ease of use. In another study that involved the entire population of University College of London staff and students, most participants surprisingly indicated that printed books were easier to read than e-books. The findings of Kuzma et al. (2013) and Rowlands et al., 2007) suggest that the frequently cited advantages of e-books may not necessarily be meaningful for students. This adds to the disadvantages of e-books over printed books from the perspective of students.
In spite of students’ negative perceptions, e-books may have a positive effect on students’ motivation to read. This was demonstrated in a study of 538 university students by Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. (2013). The study specific ally found that students who used e-books had a higher motivation to read than those who used printed books. According to Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. (2013), e-books raise students’ motivation to read by improving their cognitive learning strategies and self regulation of learning.
In particular, the characteristics of e-books, such as online access, interactivity, searchability and the portrayal of information in a non-linear format, enable students to employ cognitive and self regulated learning strategies while reading, which could in turn improve reading comprehension. Furthermore, today’s college students have grown up in the era of digital technology, making e-books more meaningful to them than printed books (Rockinson-Szapkiw et al., 2013). These factors could explain why most e-book users in Rowlands et al. (2007) study strongly preferred onscreen reading as opposed to reading on paper. While there could be some validity in Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. (2013) argument, the fact that college students still prefer printed books over e-books cannot be ignored. Additionally, Daniel and Woody’s (2013) study established that there were no significant differences in student motivation between reading electronic text and reading printed text.
Overall, e-books do not necessarily offer university students tangible benefits. It is widely believed that the growing increase in e-book sales is indicative of students’ shifting book format preferences, but the truth of the matter is that students generally still prefer printed books over e-books. The reading fatigue as well as lower convenience and ease of use associated with e-books make the typical college student reluctant to abandon printed books in favor of the former. It is important for institutions of higher learning to take note of students’ actual preferences when it comes to book format. This is particularly important since many higher education institutions are increasing the proportion of e-books relative to printed books in their libraries. Whereas the importance of access to e-books cannot be underestimated, institutions of higher learning should proceed with caution as far as replacing e-books with printed books is concerned.