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Bryce Maddock

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Digital vs. Print: The Back-to-School Battle Rages On

Posted: 08/09/11 05:04 PM ET

It's high season for back-to-school, meaning parents and students are running around, perusing the web, and cutting coupons to try to save some extra cash. The hot-button item this year has been e-books, and how digital textbooks save cash and lighten loads. But are e-textbooks really the answer to education woes? I think we have a ways to go.

For the sake of ease, I'll blow past the print-vs-digital personal preference debate. Some people like technology, some people hold fast to their printed books. But there is a point here: how many students are giving up print for Kindles and even more expensively, iPads, to carry around on campus?

The answer is, not many. In April, the National Association of College Stores (NACS) reported that only 15% of college students report owning an e-reader. That number is the highest yet, but can't be considered a movement, and definitely not a majority. Audrey Waters at HackCollege makes an interesting point that the number of print-loving students has been pretty stagnant since 2008, despite the explosion of new technology and services since then.

So, what has to happen for students to switch? First off, more digital textbooks need to become available. Amazon announced their Kindle Textbook Rental program this month, causing a flurry of excitement as they promised 80% discounts and the ease of flexible rental periods. This sounds like a goldmine, but textbook comparison site CampusBooks.com did some digging and punched a hole in Kindle rental hopes: sure, Kindle Rental had the best prices, but only 18 of the top 100 textbooks for fall back-to-school.

The same complaint has been made of iPad e-book app Inkling, though investments from big publishing companies may make that change in the near future. But for now, the fact remains: students may want to pay less and go digital, but they can't find their books.

There are plenty of companies and projects making exciting headway in the digital space, including open-source, free options like Flat World Knowledge and the HathiTrust Digital Library.

But for back-to-school 2011, the best bet and cheapest options remain solidly in the print space, and old-school sensibility reigns: do your homework and search around for the best deal. Price comparison sites like CampusBooks, which search used, new, rental and yes, even e-books, still wield the best deal-finding power for students.

 

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