Life Textbooks piled up.

Published on November 24, 2014 | by Matthew Stamper     Photography by Matthew Stamper


Paper or electronic: tale of textbooks

University and college students may not be able to cut down their tuition costs, but there is another way that they may be able to save some money.

Textbooks can be a very expensive cost for a student, but there are alternatives to the traditional print textbooks. E-books can save students some money and some weight off of their shoulders.

Both mediums are useful, and have their advantages and disadvantages.

Cost and Resale

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada says that it is reasonable to expect a physical copy textbook to cost between $800 and $1000 for a single year.

Alexander Kwiecien, a student at Humber Lakeshore, and former intern at Oxford University Press, a publishing house that prints textbooks for university students says it’s more than just the cost of the book.

“It’s printing, but warehousing and distribution is a huge cost, ” he says.

Kwiecien also says that because printing has become an older business, physical copy textbooks prices have to reflect that fact.

“With technology, there are lots of new players. They’re challenging traditional models,” he says.

On the other hand, e-books can save students quite a bit of money. But while the textbook may cost very little, the devices that read them, like iPads, Kobos and Kindles, may make a physical copy textbook more worth it.

These devices can cost a student as little as $50, with very few features, to $800, with every feature imaginable.

While students may see value in buying online textbooks, they usually have a time limit. The textbook is erased from their device’s hard drive, ridding students of the chance to revisit a book from their past.

Kwiecien says that the physical textbooks also offer something that the online textbooks can’t.


“There is resell value for students. You can cover a lot of costs,” Kwiecien says.


Online textbooks provide a break for students’ wallets, as well as a break for their backs. Online textbooks can be purchased and downloaded anywhere from computers to smartphones. This makes a public transit commute a good time to catch up on readings, without having to carry around a pile of books. Instead, textbooks from every class can be taken everywhere without an audible groan. Travelling lightly to and from school can make a world of difference.

Even though textbooks can be viewed on e-readers, students should be wary of formatting issues. A University of Guelph textbook study shows, not all textbooks will appear the same and have the same features on a desktop computer, as they will on a smartphone or e-reader,

Research and “Studyability” 

A University of Guelph study, which also included some Guelph-Humber students, conducted last year compared students’ feelings between the two mediums.

Guelph-Humber Academic Liaison Librarian Jennifer Easter says that the chosen medium of the textbook really depends on the students and the situation that they’re in.

Easter says that e-books are used mainly for shorter readings, while students who want to compare and flip between books use print books.

The University of Guelph study showed that portability, accessibility and the ability to search were the key strengths of e-books.

On the other hand, print books are much easier to read, and mark up, which students found helpful when studying for exams.

“We also found that if students are studying for an exam, they would use a print book as opposed to an online textbook, just because they could scribble notes in the margins and highlight and use sticky notes. I know some of our e-books have that functionality, but it’s just not the same,” Easter says of the difference for studying students.

This study proved that there were no significant learning differences between the two mediums and that regardless of the medium, students take notes with a pen and paper.

Easter also brings up a good point with e-books that students might run into when they have a paper due the next day.

“With print books, there are no tech issues to worry about. You don’t have to worry about connecting or anything like that,” she says.

The research and studying that students can do on an e-book might be limited because of something other than technology. It might be because of students’ tolerance.

“There’s less eye strain when you’re reading a print book. When you’re staring at a screen for a long time, your eyes might hurt,” says Easter.


Kwiecien argues that having something tangible makes it more familiar. It’s something people are used to holding.

“Some people say you can dog-ear, or write in the margins, but you can do that with e-books. There’s a familiarity with printed books,” he says.

He says a local bookstore owner mentioned that her customers complained that buying e-books felt like they were buying nothing.

Easter also says that some students might find the physical copies more familiar.

“I think there might be something about holding the book, the feel of the pages, highlighting, that  kind of thing. That appeals to them,” she says.

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About the Author

is a third year journalism student at the University of Guelph-Humber.

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