Print vs. Digital

By Michael Moore | April 12, 2023

Print vs. Digital

The growth of Inclusive and Equitable Access has played an important role in driving down course materials costs and increasing access to course materials. While I believe they are the leading intervention models that can make the most impact for the greatest number of students across an entire institution, they are not the only options when it comes to course materials interventions. Open educational resources and text rental programs help contribute to the overall decrease in cost of and increased access to course materials. However, one of the course materials debates I hear the most often is print vs. digital course materials. Is one more suitable to help students learn? Are there benefits to digital course materials that print can’t offer? Here are some thoughts:

Print Course Materials

The adoption and use of print course materials has been around as long as college itself. What we have learned over the last decade or so is that print course materials, in part, has led to rising course materials costs, students not purchasing their course materials, deferring classes, or abandoning their major of choice. My guy Brad Piazza said something interesting while we were preparing for a recent conference presentation. He said that print books are a one-way push of information. With print course materials, information is only transferred one way – from the printed words on the page to the reader’s eyes. When a student reads a page in their textbook, the information is pushed from the book to the student. There is no interaction, there is no pushback. If the student doesn’t grasp the concept, they may be able to flip to a glossary in the back of the book, but there isn’t much else to aid in their learning.


Rather than talk about what digital course materials were before, I want to talk about what digital course materials are today. Almost all digital course materials content delivery providers have their own e-reader or platform to engage with the digital content. Digital course materials today are dynamic, engaging, interactive, and easily navigated. Most platforms offer similar features to help students learn and engage with the material. These features include highlighting with multiple colors, note taking, table of contents, enhanced search features, flash card creation, student-to-student collaboration, and read aloud functionality.

Digital Features

One of the biggest concerns with a shift towards digital content is access to an internet connected device for students. Most, if not all, digital platforms offer offline capabilities. This allows students to download their books and access them when they are disconnected from the internet. One of my favorite features of digital course materials in 2023 is the ability for student-to-student collaboration. This functionality works very similar to working in groups in the classroom and can be activated by faculty or students themselves. This feature allows students to work together in the textbook to share things they have highlighted or flash cards they have created on certain topics. I believe this supports the research on peer-to-peer learning. Faculty can also create small groups for collaboration. This feature would seem practical in online or hybrid courses where in-person collaboration is not possible. I do not take a position on one product or service over the other, but there are several content delivery providers that would love the opportunity to give you a demo of their e-reader or platform. I would be happy to connect you if you are not sure where to start.

The Last Physical Frontier

Would you believe me if I told you that course materials are one of the last higher education services to go digital on campus? Students are required to have access to a device and the internet to sign up for courses, add/drop courses, turn in assignments, access grades, and log into/access courses and syllabi. Almost all campus services have migrated to digital – some of them a long time ago. If you walk onto a modern college campus, it is unlikely you will find physical course sign-up or add/drop forms or get handed a syllabus when you walk into class. Why should our students expect to access all their college services digitally, but not their course materials? It’s time digital course materials join the rest of the campus services our students interact with daily.

It’s Here

The digital course materials revolution we have been promised for the last 10 years has finally arrived.  If you are looking for more reasons to adopt a digital-first course materials strategy, please check out this blog from Jason Lorgan – a pioneer in course materials. Additionally, digital course materials, as part of an Inclusive Access program, have been shown to increase student outcomes. As you ponder the print vs. digital argument, I implore you to consider how digital can impact the largest number of students. If there are real challenges for a small number of students who cannot access digital content, all course materials stakeholders are committed to ensuring those students have access to what they need to be successful. It’s time. It’s here.

As always, thanks for checking in and I’ll see you next time.