Online Exclusive: A chapter for textbooks

Every term, students get a list of textbooks to buy for class. Over the years, students have come up with many ways to overcome the financial shafting that often goes with buying textbooks.

Every term, students get a list of textbooks to buy for class. Over the years, students have come up with many ways to overcome the financial shafting that often goes with buying textbooks. Some buy online at websites such as or at bookstores other than the school bookstore; some even buy their books from other students. In the end, however, textbooks are still very expensive, are often heavy and use a lot of paper.

In recent years, however, we have begun to see devices such as the Kindle or the iPad, which are perfect for digital books. It is becoming more and more common to just buy digital versions of books for these devices, rather than their printed counterparts.

While to some it may seem odd to not have a printed copy of a textbook for class, there are really a lot of reasons to love the e-book and the benefits that come with it. Luckily, it seems that educational textbooks are coming out of the Stone Age and making a turn towards digital.

First, let’s consider the most obvious attraction to digital versions of textbooks, which is that they are significantly less expensive than printed books. Geology 201 requires a textbook that is $93 brand-new. The same book is offered in an e-book format for only $43. All you have to do is buy the packet that gives you an access code so you can download the book—quick, easy and cheap.

College is already a heavy investment, and it’s expected that one textbook can cost around $100 alone. Altogether, textbooks can run anywhere from $100–$300 or more, depending on what classes require. Anything is worthwhile just to bring the bill down.

Portland State University has already made great strides in the area of digital textbooks. The German program at PSU has already been using a digital textbook called Wie Bitte for several classes. In addition to attributes one might normally find in language textbooks such as worksheets, images and vocabulary, the CD is literally jam-packed full of audio clips that allow students to hear what they are reading. This is particularly useful in a language-learning environment where students might not be sure exactly how something is pronounced. 

Because of its multimedia features, Wie Bitte is also used as a teaching tool in the classroom as well as a text for students.

Portland State German professor William Fischer spent thousands of hours over nearly 20 years developing Wie Bitte. The software is used in all of the beginner German courses at PSU, and has undergone several updates to keep its content up-to-date during its 10 years of use as a replacement for traditional textbooks. Wie Bitte has saved students thousands of dollars in textbook costs, as German textbooks at PSU generally cost around $150. Fischer receives no royalties for his work on Wie Bitte, as the software is distributed to students for free.

Fischer notes that textbook publishers often “drag their feet” with technology, as making the switch to digital mediums is risky and costly. So it’s not uncommon to find digital content only as an addition to a printed textbook rather than as a standalone product.

Another reason that digital textbooks are a fantastic new advancement is due to their sustainable nature. You don’t need to be a green advocate to know that some textbooks can be about as big as a ream of paper. Sometimes we may have trouble tearing ourselves away from the tangible printed versions of books. Our love for sustainability just isn’t quite enough to get us to stop reading physical copies of our favorite novels.

If the class is large and every student is required to have the same textbook, the amount of paper is really quite impressive when you consider the size of most textbooks and the size of some classes.

In addition to the low-cost and sustainability aspects of e-books, there are also the ergonomic benefits. Most students share the experience of having carried a heavy backpack full of books around with them at least once in their lives. Most textbooks are not small and weigh enough to be noticeable when you have to lug them around with you—and you will especially notice them while hiking up the stairs in Neuberger Hall. It is nice to have the option of not carrying any textbooks around, especially if you don’t live on campus and must pack in your materials for class every day.

Bit by bit, classroom technology advances here and there, and in the case of textbooks it is a welcome advancement that could lead to a more economical and comfortable future for students.

With all of the benefits of e-books there are plenty of reasons to make the switch or at least buy some textbooks in a digital format, if only to offset the cost from your budget. While hard-printed formats are likely never going to go away entirely, e-books just make sense.