Exploring Students' E-Textbook Practices in Higher Education

Key Takeaways

  • A two-year university-wide study of students' e-textbook practices found that e-textbook use has increased and become broader demographically.
  • Lower cost and convenience remain the top reasons students purchase an e-textbook, not the interactive features designed to enhance learning.
  • The instructor's role has not changed significantly in the past two years, suggesting the need for further professional development including increased awareness, instruction, and active modeling.

Aimee deNoyelles, John Raible, and Ryan Seilhamer, Instructional Designers, University of Central Florida

In American higher education, textbooks remain a popular source of academic material. Over the past decade, increasing web capabilities have ushered in a new era of reading. Digital textbooks ("e-textbooks") resemble a print textbook in that the content focuses on an academic subject divided into topical chapters. While some e-textbooks simply reproduce the print experience, others leverage interactive capabilities such as simulation, polling, discussions, and learning analytics. These features are intended to aid learners in the reading experience by enhancing content in diverse ways.1

Over half of American college students have used an e-textbook in at least one course.2 A few trends contribute to the increasing use and interest in e-textbooks. First, textbook affordability has become a pressing issue. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, prices have increased 82 percent from 2002 to 2012.3 This cost sometimes drives students to delay or avoid purchasing textbooks. Digital materials such as e-textbooks may offer a more cost-effective alternative.4 Also, the expectation for digital materials is gaining strength in the K–12 sector.5 For example, Florida school districts set a goal to spend at least half of classroom material funding on digital materials by the 2015–2016 school year. Given that 81 percent of first-time-in-college (FTIC) undergraduate students hailed from a Florida public high school during the fall 2014 semester at the University of Central Florida (UCF), it is important to anticipate student expectations of digital materials. Finally, the availability of digital materials has risen exponentially with the incredible popularity of mobile devices.

A research team at UCF conducted two surveys (one in 2012, one in 2014) that assessed college students' attitudes and practices concerning e-textbooks. The goal for the initial survey in 2012 was to provide a baseline of ownership and use on which to build future research, while the goal of the 2014 survey was to gauge changes that had occurred over the two-year period. This article addresses three research questions:

  1. What is the rate and what are the types of e-textbook use, and have either or both changed over time? How do demographic factors relate to use?
  2. What are the most influential factors regarding e-textbook adoption, and have they changed over time?
  3. Regarding implementation of e-textbook use in courses, how has the role of the instructor changed over time?

Answers to these questions will generate implications and future recommendations for deployment, practice, and research concerning e-textbooks in higher education.

Key Issues

Despite the advantages that e-textbooks pose, such as interactive features and accessibility on mobile devices, several barriers exist regarding implementation in higher education, namely non-standardization of the platform, limited use by students, and the unclear role of the instructor in adoption.

Still relatively new, digital reading has grown slowly in United States higher education.6 Because of this, books developed and delivered digitally are still evolving and can vary widely.  A universal standard called electronic publication (ePUB) exists; however, companies such as Apple and Amazon have created proprietary formats. Some e-textbooks exist only in Portable Document Format (PDF, which is essentially an exact reproduction of print), while others offer interactive features such as quizzes, polls, and note sharing. Some e-textbooks are freely available on the web, while others must be purchased through traditional publishers. Students increasingly bring their own devices to the learning environment, and most students own at least two different devices.7 Some e-textbooks are available on multiple devices, and others only on a computer. Because of these variations, the way each e-textbook is constructed influences how students engage in digital reading.8 It is not surprising that institutional systematic support for e-textbooks is low. In 2013, only 5 percent of institutions in the United States broadly deployed them, with 45 percent sparsely deploying.9 For these reasons, it is important to collect additional data about these issues that are related to e-textbook type, access, and device use.

Although students tend to favor features like highlighting and annotations in e-textbooks,10 study habits tend to remain unchanged11 and they rarely make annotations.12 Previous research has identified issues with usability,13 as well as unavailability on certain devices,14 which could explain why students do not take full advantage of e-text features. In one study students expressed a "mixed but still overwhelming uneasiness toward e-textbooks."15 It is important to understand what students value in the digital reading experience, as explored in another study.16 While more than half found the assigned e-textbook easy to use and appreciated its cost, accessibility, and features, fewer than half expressed satisfaction with the experience. Emerging evidence suggests that demographics play a role, however: Older students reported a more positive experience in that study. In a related study, older male graduate students specifically favored e-textbooks more than other groups.17 Time might also be an influential factor in acceptance of e-textbooks: Students grow more receptive to e-textbooks and begin using their features when they use them over time.18

Instructor role is the final pressing issue. Integrating an e-textbook into instruction is not as seamless as simply swapping the print version for digital.19 Previous research has found that when instructors actively use and model the e-textbook (for instance, annotating it), students prefer using e-textbooks over print.20 In face-to-face classes, projecting the e-textbook with instructor annotations allows students to compare it with their own annotations and engage in discussion.21 While active use by the instructor often results in improved student outcomes, past studies found that instructors rarely orient their students to the digital reading experience or actively use the e-textbooks.22 Ultimately, instructors will need support and training, as they bear a significant responsibility for the success of e-textbook adoption.23 However, professional development that acknowledges student support and pedagogy is limited.24

Our study aimed to address these issues by investigating e-textbook factors such as use, type, access, feature preferences, and instructor practice. Comparing two surveys over a two-year time period allows us to appreciate changes that have occurred over time and predict upcoming trends.


 Because of the sparse research on students' e-textbook practices, we developed a survey questionnaire in 2012 that explored basic usage and attitudes regarding e-textbooks. The survey included both closed and open-ended questions based on surveys previously distributed online and by the university. The 2014 survey questions, although based on the 2012 survey, contained additional questions to gain in-depth information about instructor behaviors and types of e-textbooks used. Both surveys were approved by UCF's Institutional Review Board and tested by survey experts for content validity.

The research team contacted all instructors credentialed to teach online at UCF in both 2012 and 2014 and sought permission to place a link to the online surveys in the online sections of their courses. Both surveys had similar student respondent characteristics, such as sex and age. The 2012 participants were undergraduate (= 809) and graduate (= 133) students at UCF enrolled in 84 courses (face-to-face, blended, and fully online courses) from 12 different colleges. The sample was 69 percent female and between the ages of 18 and 64 (M = 26; SD = 8.17). The 2014 data was collected from undergraduate (= 1075) and graduate (n = 106) students enrolled in 83 face-to-face, blended, and fully online courses from 12 different colleges at the university. Of the respondents 68 percent were female, and the age range was 18–64 (M = 24; SD = 7.04).

The research team downloaded all survey responses from the online survey system and calculated frequencies and percentages to measure students' use of and beliefs regarding e-textbooks. Chi square statistics were used to detect whether demographic factors affected students' e-textbook practices. The team compared results of the 2014 survey to the 2012 survey where appropriate.


We have organized the survey results according to the three research questions: use, adoption, and role of the instructor.

E-Textbook Use

What is the rate and what are the types of e-textbook use, and have either or both changed over time? How do demographic factors relate to use?

In 2014, 60 percent of participants (n = 707) reported using an e-textbook at least once in their college studies. This represents an 18 percent increase over the two-year period even though the rate of instructors requiring an e-textbook did not change over time. Nearly half of participants using an e-textbook in 2012 were required to do so by the instructor; that number remained the same in 2014. Coupled with an increase in e-textbook use, this indicates that unfamiliarity with e-textbooks dropped. In 2012, 30 percent of participants said they did not use e-textbooks because they were not familiar with them or were unaware of the option; in 2014 that number dropped to 10 percent. The increasing presence of online retailers such as Amazon and Chegg over the two-year period might be a reason for these results, as these companies appeared in the open-ended comments, as did the university bookstore. In addition, participants owned more tablets in 2014 than in 2012, rendering e-textbooks more easily accessible. However, the survey results do not allow us to attribute increasing e-textbook use directly to these emerging trends.

Despite the increasing use of e-textbooks and the reduction in unfamiliarity with them, the number of participants voicing a preference for print books remained steady. In both surveys, around 40 percent of participants who had not used an e-textbook cited their general preference for print textbooks. In the open-ended comments, participants identified several reasons for preferring print — mostly objecting to the e-textbook option, however: eyestrain from looking at the screen too long, difficulty reading on a small device such as a smartphone or tablet, limited attention span, and technical shortcomings ("I like paper books, they don't crash").

Participants in 2014 were asked to specify the types of e-textbooks they had used (figure 1). The majority had used e-textbooks that offered basic features like highlighting and annotations. Nearly half reported using a PDF version devoid of extra features. A smaller percentage used e-textbooks offering interactive elements like quizzes. About one-quarter had used open textbooks that were freely available on the Internet, and a very small number reported using an instructor-created e-textbook.

figure 1

Figure 1. Types of e-textbook used in 2014

Demographic information was collected and analyzed in both surveys. In 2012, student status and level emerged as significant factors for e-textbook usage. Full-time students (45 percent) reported using e-textbooks more than part-time students (34 percent) (X2(1, N = 941) = 7.20, p = .007), and undergraduates (45 percent) reported using them more than graduates (30 percent) (X2(1, N = 810) = 10.47, p = .001). We attribute these results to the implementation of e-textbooks on a programmatic level for certain undergraduate programs at the university. Interestingly, these factors were not significant in 2014, suggesting that e-textbook use is blossoming beyond the programmatic level. However, class level and sex emerged as significant in 2014: Seniors (69 percent) used e-textbooks more than any other undergraduate level (freshmen at 46 percent, sophomores at 56 percent, juniors at 58 percent) (X2(1, N = 810) = 10.47, p = .001), and male students (68 percent) used e-textbooks more than female students (56 percent) (X2(3, N = 1,178) = 16.77, p = .001). This finding supports the finding from a previous study that male students may favor the e-textbook experience more than females.25 The survey results cannot explain this recent shift in trends, but we think it worth exploring in further detail in the future.

Adoption Factors

What are the most influential factors regarding e-textbook adoption, and have they changed over time?

Lower cost remained the top factor influencing e-textbook adoption from 2012 to 2014 (figure 2). To understand this factor more clearly, the research team asked 2014 participants about the ways in which they obtained e-textbooks. Of the respondents, 70 percent reported purchasing them from online retailers at least once; around half had rented instead of purchasing at least once; and 33 percent reported purchasing at the campus bookstore at least once. Purchasing from online retailers and renting are two strategies that typically result in lower cost for the student, so these results were not surprising.

The second most important factor influencing e-textbook adoption for students was convenience. The ability to access e-textbooks anywhere, to access e-textbooks offline, and to store many e-textbooks on one device influenced participants from both surveys (figure 2). Note that in 2014 the percentages dropped slightly across the board, possibly suggesting that the factors do not have quite as much influence as they did two years earlier.

figure 2

Figure 2. Factors influencing e-textbook adoption, 2012–2014

Looking at devices, tablet ownership grew from 37 percent in 2012 to 57 percent in 2014. Despite this 20 percent surge, the rate of participants using a tablet most frequently to access their e-textbooks only rose 5 percent over the two-year period (figure 3). Computers (defined as desktops and/or laptops) remained the most frequently used device with which to access an e-textbook, which conflicts somewhat with the preference for heightened e-textbook access.

figure 3

Figure 3. Devices used frequently to access e-textbooks

Concerning student preferences for features within e-textbooks, reading (searching for keywords, glossary, zooming text, and multimedia), studying (highlighting, tagging, making notes, taking quizzes), and instructor (viewing instructor annotations, posting questions in the book) features continued to top the aspects of e-textbooks that participants found most important in influencing their decision to adopt e-texts over print (figure 4). When asked what factors would influence them to adopt an e-textbook over a print book, the search capability came up several times as a way to read and study more efficiently. One participant called it a "godsend," while another lauded "the ability to search for information, rather than wasting time looking for it." Despite the rising popularity of social media, the majority of students in both surveys rated social features (sharing notes with peers, sharing a passage on a social media site) as much less important in influencing their decision to adopt an e-textbook over print. When asked about active use of these features, around 53 percent of participants reported that they seldom or never used features such as highlighting and making notes.

figure 4

figure 4

Figure 4. Students' preferences for e-textbook features

Role of the Instructor

Regarding implementation of e-textbook use in courses, how has the role of the instructor changed over time?

As noted earlier, no increase occurred in the number of instructors requiring e-textbooks in their courses over the two-year period. The survey identified the instructor several times for participants who chose not to adopt an e-textbook. One participant mentioned that the instructor did not allow use in the classroom of the device for which the e-textbook was available, meaning the instructor explicitly advised against the digital option. Another respondent was "afraid the instructor would not accept the eBook version."

In 2012, 75 percent of participants claimed that instructors seldom or never used the features within the particular e-textbook. This rate remained low two years later, with 77 percent of participants reporting that their instructors seldom or never used the features of an e-textbook. In 2014 additional follow-up questions about instructor activity attempted to clarify the issue. Of the 2014 participants who had previously used an e-textbook, 33 percent reported that an instructor mentioned an e-textbook in their syllabus, and 36 percent reported that an instructor provided instructions for how to use an e-textbook. Only 28 percent of instructors actively modeled the use of an e-textbook to their students.


The survey results yield two main insights of potential benefit to universities interested in implementing digital textbooks.

  • First, to consider implementation of campus-wide e-textbook initiatives, universities must account for factors such as low cost, tablet access, and desired e-textbook features, all related to the overall e-textbook market.
  • Second, effective professional development for faculty using e-textbooks should encompass different aspects of the instructor's role, including specific strategies such as inclusion of e-textbook expectations in the syllabus, clear support for instructors and students, and active use of the e-textbook by instructors to model use for students.

University-Wide Implementation of E-Textbooks

A major challenge facing the deployment of e-textbooks at the university level is market fragmentation, evidenced by the many different types of e-textbooks and features available. It is challenging to guide instructors to consistently select quality e-textbooks when each has different features and comes on different devices. Creating a unified standard does not appear likely in the foreseeable future, but some promising implications will support universities in selecting and implementing digital materials.

First, low cost was the top factor for students adopting an e-textbook. Regardless of quality and effectiveness, e-textbooks need to be offered at a reasonable price. Most students who have used e-textbooks purchased them from online bookstores, which typically offer lower costs than university bookstores. University bookstores will have to become more competitive in order for e-textbooks to gain more mainstream popularity and awareness on campus. Librarians and instructional designers could emerge as helpful consultants for the selection of appropriate open e-textbooks.

Second, universities will need to offer more easily accessible e-textbooks. The 2014 survey found rising tablet use for e-textbook access; however, the vast majority of survey respondents still use a computer most frequently. This inhibits the "anytime, anywhere" access that mobile devices offer and that participants chose as one of the top factors influencing them to adopt an e-textbook. E-textbooks need to be available not just on mobile devices, but on multiple devices. In addition, instructors and librarians can streamline e-textbook access by considering the digital rights management (DRM) policies of the publisher at the time of adoption. DRM can limit the number of devices on which an e-textbook can be viewed, the number of students who can access the same e-textbook at the same time, and the ability to print. Selecting e-textbooks with limited or DRM-free policies might encourage heightened access and adoption. Also, selecting textbooks offered in bundles (both print and digital access) supports any preferences students have.

Third, universities should articulate their needs to digital publishers. For example, the majority of students participating in the surveys used PDF versions or ones that offered basic features, but lacked the interactive features (widgets, multimedia, self-assessment) that can make e-textbooks advantageous for learning. Dialogue with publishers and providers should ask for e-textbooks that go beyond digital facsimiles of print books to include richer features such as interaction with content, multimedia, and social features. Students in both surveys indicated that reading, studying, and instructor features would influence their adoption of an e-textbook over a print book. However, while most e-textbooks offer reading and studying features, they usually lack many instructor features. While students do not particularly favor social features (not surprising, as textbooks are often used to formally assess individual work), it is still important to encourage the opportunity to learn from peers. Finally, careful attention must be placed on e-textbook usability. When students perceive an e-textbook as not easy to use, they are less enthusiastic about adopting them and recommending them to others.26

One of the most promising directions for universities points to customized solutions. In the 2014 survey, instructors did not widely adopt open e-textbooks and instructor-composed e-textbooks. It would be helpful for universities to forge relationships with publishers and providers to offer solutions that involve infusing instructor-written content with publisher content, along with open online content. Universities should also incentivize instructor-composed e-textbooks, which can be reused from semester to semester.

The Instructor Role

Survey results indicated that despite an increase in e-textbook use among students, instructor use remained the same. This study nonetheless highlights some of the areas that can ensure more effective instructor integration of e-textbooks. Importantly, instructors must realize that their students use e-textbooks, often without their knowledge, and that they need to be prepared to support this new style of reading course content. This might mean that instructors leery of mobile devices will have to rethink their course policies. A helpful professional development activity for these instructors would be accessing and reading a digital academic book and reflecting on the experience.

Only around one-third of instructors acknowledged the e-textbook option in their syllabus. Verbalizing the purchasing options for students in the syllabus can further increase awareness of the digital option and also lets students know e-textbook use is acceptable. About one-third of instructors provided their students with instructions on how to use an e-textbook. While instructors should not necessarily act as the sole technical support for students, it is important to give a general overview of how to use the e-textbook (like any other digital tool) and point students toward valuable resources for further support. Finally, less than 30 percent of instructors actually modeled the use of the e-textbook. As noted earlier, when instructors model e-textbook use, students tend to prefer e-texts over print and demonstrate higher learning outcomes. Showing students how to most effectively read and study from an e-textbook, which differs fundamentally from a more linear print textbook, is critical for effective integration of the e-textbook into the course.


In this study, we found rising use of e-textbooks at UCF from 2012 to 2014. In the very near future, we anticipate a shift in student expectations from a "print book first" to a "digital first" mentality when purchasing course materials.

UCF has taken some actions in response to the survey results. For instance, multiple instructional designers are collaborating with librarians about promoting access to open e-textbooks. An online professional development course called "E-Textbook Essentials" now offered at UCF aims to support instructors in carefully selecting and implementing digital reading materials in instruction. Considering the longitudinal data collected, our future plans have shifted from encouraging awareness and understanding of the landscape at UCF to promotion and adoption of e-textbooks. Action items include:

  • Exploring more systematic use of e-textbooks at a college/department level rather than an individual instructor level
  • Expanding professional development to include student support and pedagogical strategies, such as careful e-textbook selection and active instructor modeling
  • Expanding our existing e-textbook focus group, which shares best practices and generates research, to include a broader representation of the university population
  • Engaging with the university bookstore to increase awareness of e-textbooks among students and instructors
  • Collecting data at more regular intervals to impact current decision making regarding e-textbook use and adoption

This survey research has its limitations; the sample included undergraduate and graduate students at only one university located in the southeastern United States. Future research could focus on varied contexts or samples, such as adults or students of other ages, regions, or countries. Also, while the survey provides data regarding e-textbook use, it does not speak to the effectiveness of this instructional delivery method. Further experimental research, properly designed and conducted, could measure the effectiveness of mobile learning in various disciplines.

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