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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Why Students Prefer Print Textbooks

I was overjoyed to find an article on www.washingtonpost.com entitled, “Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right,” by Michael S. Rosenwald. I was even happier to find the same article on my list from the Goggle Alerts aggregator. And when I Googled the first few words of the story, I found (what turned out to be an Associated Press story) in about six Google pages of listings.

This AP article had made a significant impression. Obviously. After all, this entire list of publications across the country had run the same AP story.

Even those who have grown up with an iPhone, iPad, or whatever other electronic device in their hands still find reading a textbook printed on paper to be a more efficient way to learn than reading the same material online on on an ebook reader.

Here are some of the reasons:

The Physical, Tactile Experience of a Print Book

According to Rosenwald’s article, students gain value from the low-tech nature of the textbooks. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.” (a response from Frank Schembari, a 20-year-old American University student quoted in the article). Apparently in a world where almost every minute is spent switching from one electronic device to another, consuming bits and bytes of information, learning from a silent, simple device (a print book) provides a wholly different experience than the norm.

Apparently, Shembari is not alone. Rosenwald’s article notes that “a University of Washington pilot study of digital textbooks found that a quarter of students still bought print versions of e-textbooks that they were given for free.”

Print Textbooks Support Mental Focus

Rosenwald includes in his article a quote from Naomi S. Baron’s “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.” Baron is an American University linguist who studies digital communication. According to Rosenwald, Baron had found that “readers tend to skim on screens, distraction is inevitable and comprehension suffers.”

Studies note that the ability to multitask is a fallacy. Apparently, people can switch from one task to another quickly, but they can’t do two things at the same time. And when they shift from one to another, there is a time lag. The brain has to refocus. In studying, this retards comprehension. So watching cable TV while studying and talking and texting on the smartphone is not the best use of study time, and students are beginning to understand this. They are often paying a premium for a textbook to supplement their free ebooks.

Again, this is not an isolated experience. Rosewald’s article notes that “Pew studies show the highest print readership rates are among those ages 18 to 29, and the same age group is still using public libraries in large numbers.”

Awareness of the Physical Location of Information in a Print Book Aids Retention

Apparently there is something to be said about physical location in a print book. As Rosewald’s article notes:

“Researchers say readers remember the location of information simply by page and text layout — that, say, the key piece of dialogue was on that page early in the book with that one long paragraph and a smudge on the corner. Researchers think this plays a key role in comprehension.”

Since readers jump from one Web page to another, they don’t read word for word. They skim, and the awareness of a particular concept on a particular physical page of a book is lost. Readers are more scattered in their approach, even when they read long-form documents on their electronic devices.

This distracts students and diminishes comprehension.

Interestingly enough, Rosewald’s article includes Baron’s findings that “students were more likely to multitask in hard copy (1 percent) vs. reading on-screen (90 percent).” Students jump from an article they’re reading to their email to Facebook and then back to the article.

Benefits of Used Textbooks and Writing in the Margins

Rosewald’s article points out that many students had bought used textbooks pre-underlined and marked with the handwritten notes of prior owners. There’s just no immediate, easy way to do this on an e-reader. There is definitely something to be said for reviewing not only the text but also other people’s responses to the text scribbled in the margins.

The Benefits of Digital Textbooks

“Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right” lists several situations in which students do prefer digital texts:

  1. For technical information in which an electronic link to supplemental material can make understanding a concept easier, a digital text is ideal.
  2. For subject matter in which locating information is key, digital texts are ideal. Print books don’t have a “search” function (like Google). Nor do they have a “find” key to immediately lead the student to all instances of a particular term.
  3. Compared to a free or almost-free ebook, a physical textbook is expensive. Rosewald’s article notes Baron’s findings that the price of textbooks had risen 82 percent in the decade from 2002 to 2012. Rosewald states that “if price weren’t a factor, Baron’s research shows that students overwhelmingly prefer print.”

From the School Administrator’s Point of View

School administrators love that e-textbooks are cheap and can be updated, according to Baron. They are also interactive, and they weigh less, leading to less back strain for the students. However, since students are having a harder time accepting long-form reading, Baron believes that administrators’ pushing laptops, e-readers, and tablets for study may have far-reaching negative effects on American education. Administrators are rushing into electronic media “with little thought for educational consequences.”

How This Relates to You and Me

If you’re designing print books, it looks like you’ll have a continued market for your product (and design skills) for years to come. After all, these are today’s students the article is describing.

If you’re reading books, you’ve got some serious thinking to do about the benefits and liabilities of digital texts.

From my point of view, it’s not an either/or question. Choosing the right tool for learning new material–whether it is a digital book or print book or both–reflects wisdom.

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