Just over a week ago, I went to a day-long seminar about the potential for free/low cost textbook options. All of them were digital. A low-cost alternative for instructor copies offered by a textbook company I happen to like is also digital. I own an e-reader which I use mostly for graphic novels due to the lesser cost and space required of the digital versions. Nevertheless, I still prefer a physical paper book (magazines too, but that’s another rant).
For academic uses, I find that paper books are superior in enough ways to be worth some extra cost. Granted these are books that I know I will be using, and that I can afford. Flipping between work and a source has to happen with both screen and paper, so there’s no advantage there. However, without greater technological resources than I have, it is not possible to split a screen between work and several sources, and keep everything in the same view and same focus while continuing to work However, this is possible with paper or/and a screen and paper combination. Advantage: paper.
I don’t mind digital sources for browsing purposes, but for sustained work, I don’t think I will ever prefer digital to a paper option. Especially since paper is not susceptible to running out of power and needing to be plugged in, nor is it as worry-some to have out in public. I have no problem leaving a pile of books and notebooks on a table in a coffee shop while I get up and go to the bathroom. They’ll still be there when I get back. However, would I do that with a laptop or tablet? Not likely. This simple fact is also the reason why I don’t buy the portability argument in favor of digital texts. Sure they might be easier to carry, but then you’re stuck carrying them everywhere. I can leave a bag of books in the car to go into a grocery store; not so with a computer or other digital device (heat and theft both being possible concerns).
I was in college when digital resources were still being integrated into standard academic study, so I learned how to use paper catalogues and journal indices, but also how to use online search engines and bibliographies. While I can appreciate the speed of the digital version, I think that’s the biggest problem with current academic study now. Because the digital is so much faster, people are prone to expect automatic results, and give up immediately if the search does not instantly yield the ideal matches. This is one of my biggest irritations with teaching academic research.
There are plenty of studies that say students today are digitally literate, and plenty more that say that digitalization has ruined at least two generations for serious academic study thanks to decreased attention spans etc. Personal experience suggests that the latter is more accurate. I have been in a variety of classrooms for a total of 7 years with 100s of students, and I can count on 1 hand the number who would probably have the patience to go through 100 hits of a search to find the best results. Granted that level of tenacity and thoroughness isn’t usually required until late career undergraduate projects and beyond, but patience and the willingness to spend time focusing and working through a range of sources is a good general skill to have.
Back to the textbooks scenario I opened with. There is another disadvantage to digital textbooks that often seems to go unstated. If students have to use their digital devices (laptop, smart phone, tablet), then they will have the devices out in class in order to discuss or work with the texts. This means that the temptation to check email, social media, text a friend, etc. will be staring them in the face. My experience again suggests that the number of students who might have the patience to go beyond the first 3 search engine hits is probably pretty similar to the number who can resists the urge to check something not class related.