Turning Tides: E-Textbooks vs. Textbooks

December 22, 2022

Education of all types has continually shifted to include more online and digital tools, and in recent years the shift to online learning accelerated. The abrupt switch to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic caused digital education to evolve rapidly, solidifying online learning tools as the new norms. While e-textbooks were a useful option for students before COVID, their prevalence has grown, with the majority of courses providing e-textbooks at least as an option. 

While the traditional textbook market isn’t going anywhere soon, a clear shift toward e-textbooks has been made. Students are beginning to prefer digital mediums for learning and the benefits that come with them. Let’s go over what e-textbooks are and the benefits and downsides of using e-textbooks over traditional print books. 

What is an e-textbook?

Electronic textbooks, or e-textbooks, are digital versions of textbooks that can be read on digital devices like desktops, mobile phones, or tablets. E-textbooks often come as a free addition to traditional textbooks or might be purchased or provided independently. E-textbooks that come alongside print textbooks might contain additional media, such as video and audio, to make the text more interactive. Many e-textbooks also include homework, self-assessments, or built-in quizzes along with the content. Since they are digital, e-textbooks can be much more dynamic learning tools.

E-textbooks might be purchased online, or students may receive a code in their print textbooks to access the digital version. Depending on the type of digital textbook, students must either be connected to the internet to use them or download them to their device. E-textbooks may also require additional applications. Some may also limit the number of users per account to ensure each student purchases their own copy.

Why have e-textbooks been growing in popularity? 

The growth in popularity of e-textbooks is not a new trend. As the internet and digital devices have become more accessible tools for students in the past decades, additional online tools like e-textbooks have evolved with them. However, the abrupt halt to in-person learning with the COVID-19 pandemic solidified this major shift to digital. Not only have e-textbooks risen in popularity since COVID, but e-books in general have become more popular. E-book sales grew by 22% in 2020 and are projected to grow to $7.78 billion by 2025 — up from $5.91 billion in 2019. 

Why are e-textbooks so popular? In short, e-textbooks offer a wide variety of benefits that students can’t pass up.

Benefits of e-textbooks

E-textbooks have numerous advantages over traditional textbooks. Here are some of the valuable benefits that make e-textbooks so favorable.


While high school students may receive school-provided textbooks from their libraries, it’s no secret among college students that textbook shopping for each term is expensive. Buying physical textbooks for multiple classes can rack up hundreds of dollars every year. E-textbooks are significantly cheaper, costing 40-50% less than paper copies.


Another benefit of e-textbooks is their accessibility. Not only are they easy for students to obtain, but they are helpful to those with learning or physical disabilities. E-textbooks are more suited for anyone with visual impairment who might need screen readers or increased font size. Additionally, e-textbooks have audio capabilities for those who are hearing impaired. These benefits can be life-changing for some students, taking learning abilities and engagement to new heights. 


One of the biggest benefits of e-textbooks is their portability. Unlike bulky, heavy, traditional textbooks, e-textbooks can be stored on one device. Students may have a whole library of information at the tip of their fingers. This is also crucial for those with accessibility needs, as physical exertion is greatly reduced. Additionally, since students can bring their e-textbooks anywhere, they are more likely to use them in the classroom as a side-by-side reference to improve their overall knowledge.

Remote access 

In addition to portability, e-textbooks can be accessed remotely on a phone, tablet, or another device. Having e-textbooks readily available from anywhere can increase learning and studying time since students are less likely to “forget” their textbooks.

Interactive learning

Unlike paper textbooks, e-textbooks allow for interactive, dynamic learning. Since they are digital tools, the possibilities for interactive media are endless. This could include short videos accompanying chapters, self-assessment questions on each page, clickable definitions for complicated words, and even 3D rendering of graphs, diagrams, and images. 

Students can often take notes directly in their e-textbooks, with the ability to highlight lines of text with ease. The interactivity of e-textbooks allows for immersive coverage of complicated subjects, such as life science. Interactive learning is even the key to success for some students, being a popular learning preference. Plus, it can simply make learning more fun.


One of the greatest perks of e-textbooks is that they are more environmentally friendly than traditional textbooks. Paper textbooks require trees to be cut down and are often used for only short periods and wasted afterward. E-textbooks, however, require no paper and only a small amount of energy to be created and used. While paper textbooks may ultimately end up in landfills, e-textbooks can remain on a digital device with minimal data storage necessary. 

Drawbacks of e-textbooks

While e-textbooks bring valuable benefits to students, they also have their drawbacks that should be addressed. Some of the downsides of e-textbooks include:

Technological reliance

One downside of e-textbooks is their dependence on technology and the internet. Many e-textbooks can be downloaded to a digital device and are available without internet access. Nonetheless, this can be an issue for those without access to technological devices. Additionally, technological reliance can be difficult for those with lower levels of digital dexterity or the ability to adapt to new technology. Less tech-savvy students may have difficulty learning with digital tools. Educators may also have trouble teaching with digital tools, as evident in Gartner’s 2018 Digital Dexterity Survey, which found that only 16% of leaders have high digital dexterity.

Less in-person engagement

E-textbooks cultivate a more remote learning environment than an in-person one. Courses may be entirely online without any in-person interaction or partially online due to much of the course being taught through the interactive e-textbook. In-person courses with e-textbooks might also distract students from the educator and each other, decreasing in-person interactions in this way. Less in-person engagement may decrease students’ overall engagement with the course, as well as make knowledge absorption more difficult for some. With e-textbooks and other digital tools, educators must rethink how to cultivate a prosperous learning environment.

Difficulty learning for some

Unfortunately, the main drawback of e-textbooks is that they may be more difficult for some to follow. Similar to how some students learn best in an in-person environment over an online one, some also learn best with tangible learning materials rather than digital ones. Having a paper book where one can turn pages alongside other materials or devices is crucial for some. 

This is why having an e-reader device separate from other devices can be extra helpful for e-textbooks. Students can have text side-by-side with other devices as they would with a traditional textbook, but not all students have access to these devices. For those students who prefer paper materials, they still have the option to print e-text as necessary.

Greater distractions

Since they’re online tools, e-textbooks may make it harder for students to focus with all the digital distractions at their fingertips. These distractions include not only browsing other sites, pop-ups from notifications, and more but also distractions from moving media on pages. Images or videos can be distracting and make it harder to focus or absorb the material fully.

Licensing and access restrictions

Many e-textbooks have license and access restrictions to ensure students purchase individual copies. This means students cannot share e-textbook accounts with others, whereas sharing paper textbooks is possible. Additionally, e-textbooks might become unavailable to the student after the term or semester is over, with expirations on licensing. Copyright restrictions also make it impossible to resell one’s e-book once they no longer need it, as many do for paper textbooks. This also means purchasing affordable pre-used copies is prohibited.

Why e-textbooks and digital formats are the best mediums for life sciences

When it comes to teaching and learning life science subjects like health, medicine, biology, and more, e-textbooks and digital formats can go a long way in strengthening education. The benefits of e-textbooks, like interactivity, make the complicated subject material more immersive, resulting in higher student success rates. This is particularly useful in the various life science fields where this information is directly used in day-to-day work, such as health care. Additionally, the affordability, accessibility, portability, and sustainability of e-textbooks make them hard to beat. 

The perks of using these digital tools often outweigh the negatives. Depending on one’s needs and learning preferences, e-textbooks have the potential to provide a valuable, comprehensive, and interactive learning experience for students.

Caduceus International Publishing offers online courses with comprehensive e-textbooks and supplemental materials included. Caduceus’ courses cover life science subjects like medical terminology, human nutrition, anatomy, and more for health science students of diverse ages. Reap the benefits of online learning with Caduceus International Publishing. Contact us today to get started.

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