February 16, 2018

Digital vs Print: Taking a Position as an Academic Librarian | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellAs collections transition to digital and print finds its way into remote storage sites, how does our profession respond to research that favors print over digital for reading comprehension, learning, and meeting student preferences?

Whether we are intentional about it or when events beyond our control force it on us, academic librarians are experiencing a shift from print to digital. At my own library, print periodicals were once so voluminous they required their own 5,000 square foot space. Now you can walk by what remains of it in seconds, barely noticing the existence of a print journal collection. Just recently, we added 200,000 ebooks as part of a consortial collection. Our new bookshelves fill up with fresh print titles every week, a sign that the predicted death of print is unlikely to occur anytime in the not-so-near future. That said, our community members who prefer print would rightly find alarm in the way the scale has tipped in favor of digital. If you believe some recent research, this trend is more than just bothersome to print lovers; it might actually be detrimental to student learning and success.

Where Digital Shines

While the shift to digital has failed to yield any significant savings to academic libraries, it has offered other benefits. It’s eliminated much of the past drudge work of issue check-in, labor devoted to locating lost materials and replacing them, manual photocopying for interlibrary loan, and other print-related chores. Just ask a community member if they would rather spend an hour commuting to your library for a trip to the stacks over seamlessly connecting to a digital book from the comfort of home. For academic librarians, adding ebook content to the discovery engine vastly increases the value of book chapters as a searchable database. There are tradeoffs, such as coping with clunky display and print features, or eyestrain, but why would higher education make a case for supporting print over digital—especially when it comes to expensive textbooks?

Concerns about digital

Academic librarians get pushback on the decline of print or greatly reduced access to what remains of it for multiple reasons:

  • Increased time to retrieve it from remote storage sites and ASRS systems;
  • Lack of shelf browsing;
  • Detrimental to serendipitous discovery;
  • Reading devices are substandard or not equally available to all;
  • Ebook systems are user unfriendly

New research suggests educators can add another, even more ominous, reason to the list. Students fail to comprehend complex or lengthy material in digital format as well as they do in print. That’s the finding of a research review titled Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal. It states that “It is fair to say that reading digitally is part and parcel of living and learning in the 21st century.… No matter how complex the question of reading across mediums may be, teachers and students must understand how and when to employ a digital reading device.” One of the authors, Lauren Singer, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, said that digital can work fine for shorter pieces with a single main idea, but that instructors should advise students to print out longer, more complex works. When asked, faculty consulted for this same article indicated they leave it up to the students to decide on print or digital. One, Judy Donovan of Colorado State University, said that her graduate and online students prefer digital texts, but other faculty expressed concerns about the impact of digital on student learning. Depending on who you ask, students prefer either print or digital. When Purdue University students were asked, Nathan Everett, a rising sophomore in engineering, said that he finds hard copy texts are easier to mark up for note taking purposes. Alex Ferrando, a student taking courses in a summer engineering program, prefers online material, but noted there are downsides. “Formatting makes it harder to read online,” he said. His preference for online materials is driven by their affordability and accessibility—and the lightened load in his backpack.

Who’s pushing print?

It will surprise no one that the Paper and Packaging Board, a trade association whose mission is “to help slow the decline in paper use and expand demand for paper-based packaging products,” in its Paper and Productive Learning Report, claims that paper is the preferred technology for productive learning. Their report cites the research of Dr. Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University, who asserts the move away from print material could be detrimental to student learning. Baron’s research indicates that 92 percent of student respondents to a survey said they learned better when using print. The Paper and Packaging Board site features Baron’s research and together they are launching an initiative called “Read #15 Pages a Day.” While Baron does acknowledge that digital content helps to support online learners, she points to academic libraries that are digitizing collections and supporting faculty scanning of single chapters of textbooks for reserves as a cause for concern. What faculty and students make of the print versus digital debate is likely to come down to some combination of personal experience and personal preference. But there is one area where academic librarians should be concerned about the impact of experts urging print over digital.

Not my Survey

Because Open Educational Resources (OER) are born digital or delivered that way, faculty who believe that digital content is detrimental to student learning are more likely to resist adopting OER. This would add to existing faculty barriers to OER adoption, such as concerns about quality and lack of OER in their discipline. Research on OER supports that it either improves student learning or is no less effective than traditional print textbooks. My own experience in working with over 60 faculty members across disciplines who dropped traditional print textbooks for digital learning materials in the last seven years is that few report digital content as a barrier to learning and most get better results with few student complaints. Overwhelmingly, students are ecstatic to have free learning content and will gladly adopt digital content as a tradeoff. Baron’s surveys may find that students express a preference for print, but I find that these studies rarely present students with a spending tradeoff question. Test it yourself: Ask a few students if they’d give up a $200 print textbook for no-cost digital learning material. I think most will gladly take that tradeoff.

What to tell faculty

I asked my colleague and OER advocate Cheryl Cuillier, OER Coordinator at University of Arizona Libraries, what she would tell faculty to encourage them to adopt OER despite concerns about the impact of digital texts on learning. Cuillier had several pieces of advice to share:

  • Focus on the flexibility, convenience, and accessibility of digital open textbooks. According to the 2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey, 66.6 percent of students don’t purchase the required textbook. A print textbook that students refuse to buy isn’t going to lead to better outcomes than a free digital textbook that they do read.
  • Emphasize that a big digital advantage for students is greater portability (at 1,517 pages, the hardcover OpenStax Biology textbook weighs nearly nine pounds!).
  • Reference the fact that the search functionality of digital textbooks allows students to quickly locate content.
  • Remind faculty that when it comes to accessibility for people with visual disabilities, and the ability for instructors to customize OER content, digital content is better than print.
  • Refer to the day-one access for the entire class that is another huge digital benefit—students aren’t waiting around for the print books they ordered from Amazon Marketplace to arrive in the mail.
  • Point out that even with digital open textbooks, students still have the option to print as many pages as they want (some academic libraries even offer free printing quotas).

In choosing between print and digital, the advantages students find with print, primarily note taking and readability, will diminish over time. Technology improvements will reduce or eliminate the gap between print and digital for highlighting, bookmarking, annotating, and more. These enhancements will contribute to greater ease of use and improved comprehension of complex and lengthy academic content. The student preference debate is but one element of a deeper and more unwieldy wicked problem facing academic librarianship. Our destiny is to have one foot firmly planted in the history and tradition of print as stewards of long held collections while the other foot steps forward into the digital future. I believe we are up to the task of finding balance between the two. In doing so we will lead our institutions to wisely accommodate both the past and future for the sake of our students’ academic success in the present.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Here’s a good question to ask–would you use an ebook if the print was checked out?
    What you should tell faculty is, we buy both, depending on the individual needs.

  2. Thanks for your comment Scott. I think you make a good case for digital. If you’ve got a license for unlimited seats, then not having access because the book is checked is never a problem with an ebook.

  3. Lisa Mierzejewski says:

    A few comments….do we ever mention the health aspects of students constantly looking at a screen..eyes, neck, backs? (http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2014/02/the-physical-effects-of-e-reading/ )And while you have no problem mentioning the paper industry’s stake in this issue, where do you cite the enormous amounts of money technology corporations are making with the digitalization of books? You also fail to mention several studies which show that students learn more and remember more from reading print sources. You remind me of a doctor who tells their patient to take a pill because it is fast and easy remedy, but neglects to tell them about the side effects.

    • Thank you for adding your comment Lisa. Health concerns are always a possibility, but working in an academic library, I have to say I’ve seen students reading print books in some pretty unhealthy looking body positions – but who knows. The rest are already looking at screens. With respect to publishers and the offering of digital books – and I don’t know that all of them are making a bundle – or any more or less than paper publishing – you perhaps didn’t read far enough into the column to note that I’m advocating open educational resources – which provide students with access to no-cost learning content. One thing I do know from the research is that when students can’t afford to buy expensive print textbooks, their chance of learning anything is severely hampered.

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