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Student Perceptions of Digital Textbooks: An Exploratory Study  


George E. Nakos


Michael H. Deis

George E. Nakos is an Associate Professor of Marketing and Michael E. Deis is an Assistant Professor of Management at Clayton College & State University.

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This paper investigates studentsí perceptions of digital textbooks. The emergence of the Internet and improvements in computer technology have led many experts to predict the demise of the printed textbook. In addition, many publishers and some educators are stressing the potential of students using digital textbooks, usually in the form of a CD-ROM. It appears, however, that very few publishers and educators have actually determined how students feel about the use of digital textbooks. The original hypothesis was that there would be little significant difference in how students felt (both before and after the use of a digital text). This study revealed that there are significant differences about how students feel before and after they had actually used a digital text.


The rapid technological developments and the information revolution that we have experienced in recent years have had a tremendous impact on the delivery of educational products. Schools, after investing millions of dollars in the upgrading of their technological infrastructure, have experimented with alternative course offerings. For example, many schools are offering courses on-line or they have transformed their traditional classroom-based offerings by enriching them with a variety of on-line sources. Taking advantage of the same technological revolution, publishers of educational material, after investing millions of dollars in acquiring advanced computer technology and creating web related course content, are looking for ways to reach students more efficiently and effectively, while still maintaining their profit goals. Their vision of using digital textbooks instead of hard copies is gaining momentum.

The idea of digital textbooks originated in the advent of the new information technology and the changes that it brought to the traditional educational environment. Colleges and universities experimenting with on-line education have reduced and sometimes eliminated the need of the traditional classroom. Students do not need to come to a fixed physical location to take a course, as on-line course work can be done anytime, anywhere. Lectures and class discussions are delivered through the Internet in a synchronous or asynchronous way. After looking at the success of on-line courses and the willingness the part of the students to read course material in an electronic format, publishers of traditional textbooks came up with the idea of reproducing and publishing a course textbook in digital form. It was an attractive idea because of the cost savings involved, both to the publishers and to the students. By eliminating the printed textbook, publishers could produce a product at a low price, benefiting both publishers and students.

It is becoming evident, as more and more hard-copy texts are converted to digital ones, that the use of digital texts by students will become a part of higher education in the future. While many researchers have looked at issues such as the performance of students in on-line courses versus the performance of students in on-campus classes (Huff, 2000) and the cost efficiency of on-line instruction (Carr, 2000), there have been very few studies on studentsí perceptions of digital texts. This study tries to answer several research questions relevant to digital texts by surveying upper level business students at Clayton College & State University (CCSU), located in Morrow, Georgia. More specifically, it attempts to see what perceptions students hold of digital textbooks and how willing they are to use them. In an era of rapid changes in higher education, it is increasingly important to actually see what views the students hold prior to implementing drastic changes. This study also tries to compare the views of students before and after they used digital textbooks. Not surprisingly, the views that students have towards such texts have evolved, and the students appear to hold very different views after they spent a semester studying from a digital text.

Review of the Literature on Digital Textbooks

With the growth of the Internet and improvements in computer technology, many experts have predicted the demise of the printed textbook (Hilts, 2001).Especially in recent years, a lot of talk has been about the potential for exponential growth in the use of digital textbooks .In fact, as late as fall, 2001, research indicated that the big-five publishers, Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Thomson, forecasted that by 2003 sales of digital texts will approach $ 1.3 billion (Blumenstyk, 2001).

There are several reasons for the forecasted growth of electronic books. Digital texts make a better reference tool because of included search functions, give readers the opportunity to have more control over their reading material, and offer new ways to inform, teach, and entertain (Fortune, 2001).In addition, digital texts are easy to transmit, store, index, retrieve, and distribute (Valenza, 1998). Bill Gates, in his The Road Ahead, predicted that digital texts would be the information appliance of the future (Valenza, 1998).

The forecasts might have been bullish, but itís actually been a bearish market for digital texts.One firm, netLibrary, which advertised itself to be the leading provider of electronic books, was put up for sale after not obtaining enough capital to remain in business. The demise of the firm, that also advertises that it has over 33,000 full-text books online, has many universities concerned because their universityís libraries have contracts with netLibrary (Young, 2001).WizeUp, another leading company in the field, originally converted over 80 higher-education textbooks into digital texts and aimed its advertising primarily at college campuses (Milliot, 2000).Their digital textsí prices were usually closer to the used book prices of the actual texts. Unfortunately, WizeUp did not remain competitive and is no longer supporting academia.

In addition, several publishers are becoming concerned that their printed texts are vulnerable to being distributed illegally (Pack, 2001). Although Hilts (2001) gave descriptive statistics from surveys indicating that 46 percent of the publishers responding to a survey planned on increasing their amount of digital conversion in 2002, eighteen percent stated that they would decrease the number of digital conversion projects.

As the article by Blumenstyk (2001) indicated, the studentsí overall reaction after using digital texts appeared to be negative. Although some students appreciated the search mechanism of the digital texts, many missed being able to read their books whenever they felt like it in bed, at the park, or at the beach. Students were also unhappy with the annotation features of the digital texts.

Being able to search without difficulty was, however, one of the strong features of a digital text (Young, 2001). E-journals permit students to easily call up research and also give students the opportunity to have huge amounts of data in a very small space.


Data Collection

The data for this study were collected at Clayton College & State University, in Atlanta, Georgia. CCSU has been a leader in using technology to improve classroom instruction. It was the first public university in the Southeast to make laptop computers mandatory for all undergraduate students in 1997. Since that time, CCSU has been open to technological innovation.

A random sample of 137 junior and senior students was taken to investigate the general perceptions that students had of digital textbooks. The students sampled had never taken a class where they had to use a digital text. The following semester two classes at CCSU used a digital textbook. Approximately 100 of the students that attended these classes responded to a questionnaire, reporting on their general satisfaction with the digital text. The two samples were not paired, and they were independent of each other. The first sample reflected the general opinions of the business student body towards digital texts, while the second sample reported the opinions of students that had used a digital text.

Following the administration of the two surveys, the data were tabulated to see whether any significant differences in the student perceptions had been observed. Out of 137 students never exposed to digital texts only a fairly small minority, approximately 18 percent, were very unwilling or somewhat unwilling to use a digital textbook.The rest of the students showed a fairly high willingness to try a digital textbook. Table 1 (below) shows the attitudes towards digital texts of the students that had never been exposed to a digital text.


Students not exposed to digital text

Very Unwilling 8 5.9
Somewhat Unwilling 18 13.1
Neutral 10 7.3
Somewhat Willing 60 43.8
Very Willing 41 29.9
Total 137 100.0

Table 2 (below) shows the responses towards digital texts of students that had taken a course where they were required to use a digital textbook. The results are radically different when compared to the previous survey. Seventy-two percent of the students declared that they are very unwilling or somewhat unwilling to ever again use a digital textbook. Interestingly, not a single student marked that he or she is very willing to use a digital textbook. It appears that the experience of using a digital textbook for a whole semester was not a satisfying one for the students and caused a radical change in their attitudes. Table 3 shows a t-test of the studentsí willingness to use a digital textbook. It reports a highly significant perceptual difference between the two groups of students.


Students exposed to digital text

Very Unwilling 35 35.0
Somewhat Unwilling 37 37.0
Neutral 15 15.0
Somewhat Willing 13 13.0
Total 100 100.0


T-test of studentsí willingness to try a digital text











Students not Exposed to Digital Text








Studens Exposed to Digital Text









The four tables (below) examine whether several demographic student characteristics have an impact on their perceptions of digital textbooks. These demographic characteristics are household income, age, ethnic background, and gender. Household income, shown in Table 4, was broken into two broad categories, families making more than $40,000 a year and families making less than $40,000. The $40,000 number was selected because it approximates the national median household income. No significant differences between the two groups were discovered. In both samples, students not exposed to digital texts and students exposed to digital texts provided similar responses, regardless of income. These findings were surprising because the researchers had hypothesized that poorer students might be willing to try a digital text based on the considerable savings associated with its adoption.


 T-test of household income with studentsí willingness to try a digital book

  household income two categories over 40000, under 40000 N MEAN STD.


STD. ERROR t df Sig


Students not Exposed to Digital Text Household Income Under 40,000 50 3.88 1.17 .16571 .862 115 .390
  Household Income over 40,000 67 3.68 1.22 .14919 .868 108 .388
Students Exposed to Digital Text Household Income Under 40,000 39 2.00 .94 .15147 -.765 84 .446
  Household Income over 40,000 47 2.17 1.08 .15897 -.775 83 .440


The next table (Table 5) shows the interaction between the age of the respondents and their perceptions of digital texts.  Students were classified in two broad age groups, the ones 25 and older and the ones younger than 25.  The dividing point of 25 was selected because in many studies students 25 and older are classified as non-traditional students, while younger students can still be classified as traditional students.  No significant differences in the perceptions towards digital texts were observed in the two groups.  Again, this was a surprising finding because the researchers had hypothesized that younger students familiar with computers would be more willing to try digital textbooks.  A possible explanation of this finding is that the studied population, CCSU students, have used personal computers for a long time and as a result all of them are comfortable with computers. 


T-test of age with studentsí willingness to try a digital book

  age two categories under 25, 25 AND OLDER N MEAN STD.




t. df Sig.


Students not exposed to digital text under 25 73 3.78 1.09 .128 -.212 128 .833
  25 and older 57 3.82 1.25 .166 -.208 111 .835
Students exposed to digital text under 25 58 1.96 .97 .127 -1.308 92 .194
  25 and older 36 2.25 1.10 .184 -1.269 67 .209

  Table 6 (below) reports on the interaction of a studentís ethnic background and his or her willingness to use a digital textbook.  While the respondents were members of five different ethnic groups, White, African American, Asian, Hispanic, and Multiracial, large enough numbers were collected only for two of the groups, White and African American. Therefore,  the subsequent table only reports differences in the two largest groups.  In the sample of students that have never been exposed to digital texts white students are significantly more willing to try a digital textbook in comparison to black students.  However, in the group that has been exposed to digital text, these differences in viewing digital texts do not exist.  Both groups express similar views. 


T-test of ethnic background with studentsí willingness to try a digital book

  ethnicity   N Mean   Std. Deviation Std. Error t   df   Sig. (2-tailed)
Students not exposed to digital text   African-American 47 3.55 1.38 .20 -2.123 105 .036
  White   60 4.03 .956 .12 -2.033 78 .045
Students exposed to digital text   African-American 31 2.06 .85 .15 -.015 73 .988
  White   44 2.06 1.10 .16 -.016 72 .987

The last table, Table 7 (below), reports on the relationship of a studentís gender and his or her willingness to use a digital textbook. In looking at the samples of students not exposed to digital texts and students exposed to digital texts, similar results were discovered. No significant divergence of opinions between female and male students was observed.


T-test of studentís gender with studentsí willingness to try a digital book

  gender   N   Mean Std. Deviation Std. Error



df   Sig. (2-tailed)  
Students not exposed to digital text   Female 60 3.83 1.13 .14 .305 123 .761
  Male 65 3.76 1.20 .14 .305 122 .761
Students exposed to digital text  Female 42 1.90 1.10 .16 -1.51 88 .133
  Male 48 2.22 .92 .13 -1.50 80.6 .137

Conclusion and Recommendations

The rapid growth and change in technology that we have experienced in recent years have transformed many aspects of the educational experience. With the increasing usage of computers in higher education, many publishing companies have been tempted to replace the traditional printed textbook with a new electronic version. The main motivations that companies have towards this change the tremendous pressures to cut costs and to offer students a new richer learning experience by utilizing the many advantages of information technology.

However, while no one can deny that digital textbooks possess certain advantages over traditional printed textbooks, the perceptions that students have of digital textbooks have to be examined. This study attempted to measure the opinions that students have of digital textbooks before and after they were exposed to them. It discovered that students hold fairly positive views of digital textbooks if they have never been exposed to them, but their satisfaction seems to diminish after they had to use and study from a digital textbook for a whole semester. These findings tend to be true regardless of the studentsí household income, ethnic background, race, or gender.

These findings tend to show that publishing companies have to be very careful before they start replacing printed textbooks with digital ones. While many students may have positive views of digital textbooks, lured by the attraction of lower costs, students that had the experience of using digital texts tend to have very negative feelings. In the future, the technology may change and reading from a digital source might be as satisfying as reading from a printed page. Until then, publishing companies have to be very careful before they introduce digital products that will not satisfy their customers.


Blumenstyk, G. (2001). Publishers promote e-textbooks, but many students are skeptical.Chronicle of Higher Education, Pg. 35, May 18

Carr, S. (2000). Online psychology instruction is effective, but not satisfying, study finds. Chronicle of Higher Education, 46 (27), pg. A48, March 10.

>Fortune, 2001. Now showing: Books. Fortune, Winter 2001, Technology Guide, Vol.142, Issue 12, pg. 281.

Hilts, P. (2001). No slowdown in digital conversion. Publisherís Weekly. July 2, 2001. Vol. 248, Issue 27, p34.

Huff, M.T. (2000). A comparison study of live instruction versus interactive television for teaching MSW students critical thinking skills. Research on Social Work Practice. 10 (4), pg. 410 Ė 416. July.

Milliot, Jim.(2000). WizeUp digital texts head to campus. Publisherís Weekly. October 2, Vol, 247, Issue 40, pg. 48.

Pack, Thomas (2001). Keeping digital text safe. Econtent. Nov2001, Vol. 24, Issue 9, pg. 20.

Valenza, J. (1998). Literature online. Book Report, Sept/Oct98, Vol. 17, Issue 2, pg. 12.

Young, J.R. (2001). A university that reveres tradition experiments with E-books. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 18, pg. 39

Young, J.R. (2001).E-book provider netLibrary puts itself up for sale, worrying librarians. The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 2, pg. 49.

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