Why physical textbooks are better than their online counterparts

Amy McNeel

There are currently six textbooks sitting atop my bookshelf. Some of them are old and worn; some of them are brand new; and, if I’m being honest, a lot of them haven’t been opened in a while. I wouldn’t consider a textbook to be my friend, and only sometimes would I even consider one to be helpful. They are long, boring and difficult to read, let alone comprehend. 

While I feel this way about all forms of textbooks, I do think online versions of textbooks make reading even more tedious. While technology has evolved tremendously and taken over most print forms, hard copies are still much better than online textbooks. 

I strongly dislike online textbooks. Now, don’t get me wrong: I understand the benefits. Oftentimes, they are cheaper than paper books; they contain built-in learning tools; and a student can easily read them whenever they want, as long as they have a laptop or smartphone on hand.

Yet, with these advantages there are also disadvantages. First, online textbooks invite distraction. It is so easy to open another tab or go onto another app when you’re reading on a phone or computer, and this easy access to other sites not only prolongs procrastination, but it also plays a part in comprehension. Information can also be easily lost or not absorbed in the first place when students take frequent social media breaks. In this sense, paper books are much better for learning and reduce temptations to look at other things. From personal experience, I can say that my time spent reading online books is actually about 30 percent reading and 70 percent surfing the web.  

Furthermore, the fancy tools available for online textbooks simply aren’t as effective as a physical pen or highlighter on paper. When a student is given a hard copy, they are able to highlight, fold important pages, and annotate and write in the margins. This is so much better for learning and studying. It’s true that online books allow you to highlight and mark important parts, but in my experience, the online tools are nowhere near as effective as the real thing. For students busy studying, it’s much easier to flip through pages of a textbook and find information than clicking a button and trying to find the right page on the screen. 

In addition, studies have shown that online reading reduces comprehension of the information. This shouldn’t be surprising given the aforementioned distractions and flashy interactive tools. According to Anne Mangen, researcher at Norway’s University of Stavanger, in her study “Reading Linear Texts on Paper Versus Computer Screen: Effect on Reading Comprehension,” reading “on a computer screen leads to poorer reading comprehension than reading the same texts on paper.” 

Because comprehending and retaining information is extremely important when it comes to reading a textbook, I think that schools and classes should stop utilizing online versions. I think we could all use a break from staring at screens from time to time, and paper books are a very plausible option.