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Published June 12, 2024

University buys e-books, but students favor print

The University is pushing for more e-books, but student demand isn’t there.

Electronic books, or e-books, are gaining popularity among college-aged students and educators, including those at the University of Minnesota.

While e-books currently account for only 6 percent of textbook sales at University Bookstores, that number is growing, said assistant director Martha Hoppe.

While colleges and universities nationwide invest in e-books, students still opt for traditional paper books for academic reading, according to a recent study.

The study centered on 17 City University of New York students and found that they almost always used electronic devices for short, non-academic reading, and favored print when reading for classes.

In 2012, the number of people in the U.S. age 16 and older who read e-books increased 7 percent from the previous year, while printed book reading fell 5 percent in the same group, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.


Donald Liu teaches applied economics at the University and has opted to use e-books in his classes for several years.

The textbook for his class appears on students’ Moodle account, and the cost — about 60 percent of the same book in print — is automatically billed to them after the deadline for dropping classes has passed.

“I wanted to minimize the cost,” he said. “I know [students] have a limited budget, and I know they take many courses and have to spend $200 to $300 just for the book for each course.”

Lower cost isn’t the only benefit to using e-books, Liu said. Many e-books come with tools that instructors and students can use to make teaching and studying more efficient, including the ability to embed videos into sections of the book or to share notes with classmates.

Though Liu is enthusiastic about the additional features e-books and e-readers offer, he said not many of his students tend to take advantage of them. He noticed that trend while monitoring how students use the material online and through a survey he gave his class last year.

“For some students who like to read [print], they will print out a hard copy. And that is a waste of resources,” he said. “Others are very comfortable — especially [those] with an iPad. They carry the book wherever they go.”

Wanbing Zhang, psychology junior, said she likes using e-books on her iPad for schoolwork but said she doesn’t use many of the added features e-books often offer.

“I can highlight things on the PDF reader on my iPad, but I don’t really share notes,” she said. “If you share notes, you have to do that with a class, and [my classes] don’t really do that together.”

The CUNY study also highlighted that students generally read e-books the same way they would read printed ones — sequentially and often without taking notes.


Though there are many benefits to using e-books, there are also drawbacks, like getting distracted by the option of going on the Internet while reading on an electronic device, Zhang said.

“When I use my iPad, if a deadline is coming, I’d rather not touch that,” she said.

In addition, students who like to keep textbooks after a class ends might decide to buy the print edition, said Hoppe, of the University Bookstores.

“These [e-books] are all basically subscription-based,” she said. “Once that timeframe has expired, the e-book goes away. … We try to make it very clear up-front how many days [students] have access to the book.”

And in order to keep costs low, instructors may need to negotiate the price tag with publishers, Hoppe said.

“The larger the class, the more power the instructor has,” she said. “We certainly will be glad to help them, but it is up to those two [parties].”

Liu said he began negotiating to lower the cost of the book he’ll require next year after learning the price was set to rise 9 percent.

E-book outlook

While the CUNY study shows college students today still tend to use printed material for academic reading, some estimate that will change.

Liu said he thinks students coming to college in the future will be more acclimated to using e-books over print textbooks.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission have rolled out a guide for K-12 educators to help provide digital textbooks to students in hopes that all K-12 students will use a digital textbook by 2017.

The University Bookstores have experienced an increase in e-book purchases by students, Hoppe said. And though not every publisher currently offers an e-book option for their textbooks, she said she hopes to continue increasing the number of titles the Bookstores can offer.

“We look at absolutely every course option that comes through to see if there is an e-book,” she said.

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