College students’ backpacks are getting heavier and their textbook receipts are getting longer, but their backs aren’t getting stronger.
Students may feel a lighter load, however, with the recent addition of digital textbooks to iPads, laptops and cellphones.
Technology companies have discussed digitalizing books for years, but the conversation has picked up rapidly in the past few months after Apple and other companies announced that they are ready to try it out, said Christine Borgman, a professor of information studies at UCLA.
This week, the California textbook company Chegg announced it would begin offering textbooks that can be rented or bought to be viewed online. A day after Chegg’s announcement, Apple announced it too would be offering virtual textbooks through a downloadable application.
The most attractive part of digital books is the potential to cut the high prices that students have had to pay, Borgman said.
“The prices of textbooks has gotten extreme,” she said. “How many students can afford to pay $200 for books per course, per quarter?”
One result of the high prices is that students may just not purchase books, and their grades can suffer because of it, Borgman said.
Textbooks that students can access online or on their mobile devices eliminate the cost of printing or distributing – some of the largest costs for publishers, she said.
Chegg has converted more than 40,000 textbooks to online content, which includes the ability to take notes, online chat and highlight passages, said Brent Tworetzky, product leader of Chegg. Chegg, which previously specialized in renting physical books to students, is one of the first companies to explore the use of existing technology for textbooks.
The two primary reasons companies such as Chegg think the future of textbooks is in digital form is price and convenience, Tworetzky said.
Traditional textbooks have not yet lost appeal for some students. Robert Cacdac, a third-year political science student, said he prefers real books.
“I don’t like staring at a screen all day,” he said. “A book separates you from Facebook and email and other distractions.”
Cacdac said all the online options he has seen for his courses have been more expensive than renting books at the UCLA Textbook Store.
“It’s nice to be able to look at your bookshelf and see what you’ve read,” he said. “It’s like your own library.”
But the pain of carrying around books is why Jeni Hernandez, a fourth-year math student, said she has bought books online previously.
“I’m just carrying around my iPad instead of a bunch of heavy math books,” she said. “Plus, you don’t have to worry about what to throw into your bag in the morning.”
Tworetzky said the new technology reduces the chance of accidentally leaving homework at home.
“Traditional textbooks are heavy, they’re a pain to lug around, and it’s easy to forget them at home,” he said.
“How often have you left your cellphone or laptop at home? With this kind of technology, you’re never far from your books.”