Physical vs. digital: a textbook debate

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They’re big and bulky, heavy and awkward, and overly priced, but textbooks are essential for most college courses.


Why do students spend hundreds of dollars a semester buying books, though? There has to be some alternative to carrying around several books in a backpack day after day.



At the Missouri State bookstore, a textbook for MTH 135, a general college algebra class, is priced at $101.50 for a used copy.


When buying traditional textbooks — either online or at a bookstore — the price is going to be high.

Not only are you paying for the book itself, but according to figures from the National Association of College Stores, textbook prices also include payments for the bookstore, shipping and handling, the publisher or publishing company, marketing for the textbook, the author, paper and printing, and then the publisher’s employees.

“I spent over $700 last semester buying my books through the bookstore,” said Alexandra Reed, a senior psychology student at Missouri State.

So when students purchase textbooks from bookstores, they need to realize that they aren’t just buying a book; they are paying these high prices to pay for every aspect that went into creating that book, which can be problematic for some college students.

“Even with used books, the pricing is crazy. It makes paying for college on my own that much more difficult,” said Reed.

A newer alternative to traditional textbooks is the use of digital textbooks or e-books. Students can easily download and access these books using tablets, Kindles and laptops and pay much less for the same exact book found in the bookstore.

Digital textbooks can be found online at dozens of sites., as well as, has thousands of e-books at reasonable prices.

Michael Borich, a media professor at MSU, believes that digital textbooks are going to be the future for college students.

“Textbooks are still part of a last century oligarchy that enrich publishers at the expense of students — it’s a huge rip off that’s about to change,” said Borich.

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Are Electronic Textbooks for Everyone? Not Necessarily


As students start to buy their textbooks for this semester, a new utility –  the eBook – is gaining substantial popularity and publicity. However, there is  one serious drawback that many eTextbook users have failed to consider – the  open book exam.

While eTextbooks offer some benefits, such as interactive learning and the  ability to avoid carrying around heavy textbooks, there are two serious  drawbacks for many college students.

The first is price. While an eTextbook, in many cases, is downloadable to a  laptop, students will have to carry the laptop to their class, find a power  outlet, and deal with the possibility that their expensive laptop could be  destroyed while on campus. If a student does not want to carry around their  laptop, eReaders are available, but there are some drawbacks. The first is that  the eTextbook that a student downloads may not necessarily be compatible with  all eTextbook readers. While most will work, because of all of the emerging  eTextbook companies, this could be problematic. Furthermore, eTextbook readers  are costly in and of themselves, with prices ranging from $100 – $300 or more.  Finally, eTextbooks are usually more expensive than buying, even new textbooks,  within the secondary market. A textbook comparison site will compare textbook  prices, and generally eTextbooks are 3 or 4 times the cost of what a student  could find a new textbook for.

The second drawback – and perhaps the most important – is the case of the  open book exam. When a student is allowed to use their textbook during an exam,  most of the time professors will not allow a student to have any electronic  equipment available while taking the test. Therefore, students that use  eTextbooks, either on a reader, or on a laptop, may be seriously disadvantaged  if a professor offers them the ability to use their textbook while sitting for  an exam. Since computers and most readers not only allow students to store notes  and other information, but connect to the Internet, it is doubtful that a  professor would allow someone to use these devices – as it would be unfair to  the other students that simply have a book.

Furthermore, a student can use an eTextbook (if the software allows it) to  print off some chapters, but the added costs of paper, and the fact that a  professor cannot guarantee that only the eTextbook information was printed may  prevent the student from using this on an open book exam. Finally, even if a  professor did allow printing of an eTextbook, the costs – at an average of $0.10  per page to print, for a 300 or 400 page selection of the text would cost the  student up to $40. If they do this for the midterm and the final, spending $80  in total, the student will spend many times more than what they could have spent  buying the textbook in the online market.

In short, while eTextbooks offer some great, enhanced content and other  advantages, they will not necessarily save a savvy student any money, and the  student may have to purchase a textbook anyway at either the midterm or the end  of the semester – if a professor allows an open book exam.

A serial entrepreneur, Derek Haake is the founder of that allows college students to compare  textbook prices easily and save up to 80%. Campushiftis a new type of social  network designed to redefine the textbook marketplace by providing students with  access to a free textbook swap database. A student for five and a half years,  Haake was inspired to create Campushift after earning his BA in Political  Science from the University of Texas at Arlington, his MBA from the University  of Akron College of Business, and his JD from the University of Akron School of  Law. After spending a small fortune on textbooks for each of his degrees, Haake  was determined to design a more affordable and sensible way for students to  purchase their books by drawing on his background in software development.  Previously, Haake was an analyst for ALLTEL and he has been a founder or owner  of three different companies in telecommunications and software.

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