An Interview with Steve Peha: E-books vs. Paper textbooks

Nov 1, 2013 by

Bryan Barnes

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University

  1. Steve , in a recent edition of your newsletter you focused on e-books and paper books. What brought this about?

I think this is a very important issue that we’re not talking about nearly as much as we should. We know that e-book reading is increasing in our schools but like so many uses of technology or new teaching practices, we’ve adopted something without looking at the research about how well it works. I think it bears study, and sure enough there is some. It’s just not getting out to educators as much as I would hope. And getting good information out to educators is the goal of my newsletter.

  1. What are your thoughts about E-books?

I believe that I am caught up in exactly the same situation that schools are. I bought one of the first Kindles six years ago. Now I have two iPads. I own hundreds of e-books, and I read them constantly. At the same time, I have given to libraries and universities almost 5000 paper books—nearly my entire library. So, as a user, I love e-books for their convenience and cost-savings.

However, I recently had a significant experience that led me to realize that my comprehension of information, especially of complex non-fiction, was much lower with e-books than with paper books. I was working on The Gates Foundation’s Shared Learning Infrastructure project (now called “inBloom”; you can find it at I had to do quite a lot of reading to understand the software development approach we were using.

We were using a well-known method and the company had purchased each of us a large hard cover book on the subject. As it happened, I had purchased the same book for my iPad six months earlier. So I decided to leave the big, heavy, textbook-like tome on my desk at work and read it on the iPad at home.

Hundreds of pages later, I realized something interesting: I couldn’t remember much of what I had read. I loved the topic. I had great incentive to read and understand it. But for some reason, I just wasn’t retaining much. Invariably, during the workday, I would reach for the hard cover until I finally brought it home and read it cover-to-cover “the old-fashioned way”. The book not only felt different in my hands, it felt different in my brain.

This experience led me to look for articles and research on the use of e-books in educational settings. I found out that my experience was not unusual.

Just as I ended up preferring the paper book for its relative ease of comprehension so, too, do college students according to a study that Dan Willingham reviewed over on his Science and Education Blog ( The article, entitled, “Electronic Textbooks: What’s the Rush?” pointed out that college students preferred traditional textbooks over e-books for studying. ( Dr. Willingham also wrote about this in a very short piece entitled “Etexbooks: Students Are Not Loving Them” (

Willingham wasn’t saying that e-books are bad. But he did have two recommendations:

None of this is to say that electronic textbooks are a bad thing, or indeed to deny that they ought to replace traditional textbooks. But two points ought to be kept in mind:

(1) The great success of e-books as simply the porting over of traditional books into another format may not translate to electronic textbooks. Textbooks have different content, different structure, and they are read for different purposes.

(2) Electronic textbooks stand a much higher chance of success if publishers will exploit the rich research literature on multimedia learning, but most are not doing so.

For these two reasons, it’s too early to pick the flag and shout “Hurrah!” on electronic textbooks.”

More recently, I came across an article referring to additional studies on the issue over at Nautilus. ( In the article, “Paper Versus Pixel”, (, author Nicholas Carr sited summarized the results of two studies:

A recent experiment conducted with young readers in Norway found that, with both expository and narrative works, people who read from a printed page understand a text better than those who read the same material on a screen. The findings are consistent with a series of other studies on the process of reading.”


A survey of owners of iPads and other tablet computers, conducted earlier this year, found that three-quarters of them still prefer to read magazines on paper.”

But what really got me was the explanation he offered for why these things might be true:

The differences between page and screen go beyond the simple tactile pleasures of good paper stock. To the human mind, a sequence of pages bound together into a physical object is very different from a flat screen that displays only a single “page” of information at a time. The physical presence of the printed pages, and the ability to flip back and forth through them, turns out to be important to the mind’s ability to navigate written works, particularly lengthy and complicated ones. We quickly develop a mental map of the contents of a printed text, as if its argument or story were a voyage unfolding through space. If you’ve ever picked up a book that you read long ago and discovered that your hands were able to locate a particular passage quickly, you’ve experienced this phenomenon. When we hold a physical publication in our hands, we also hold its contents in our mind.”

This seemed like exactly what I was experiencing between work and home as I used both the electronic and printed versions of the same book.

  1. Right now, the trend is that paper books are more costly. Do you see E-books becoming more expensive and “real” books becoming less expensive as the trend to use E-books continues?

No, I see just the opposite.

The marginal cost of producing an e-book is essentially zero. The marginal cost of producing a paper book can be several dollars. So there’s no question, at least for now, that real books will become progressively less expensive as time goes by. Or that paper books will become less expensive.

Right now, for a best-seller, I get about a 40% discount on the e-book version. But as these titles “age out”, their prices dip further. And for classics, I can usually get them for $0.99 or even free. Sometimes I can get the entire collected works of a famous author like Dickens, for example, for absolutely nothing.

  1. Do you think students are more likely to use E-books because they are cheaper and the medium is not as heavy? Or is it due to readability and accessibility?

I think it’s pretty much a matter of what we put in front of them. Kids don’t go shopping for schoolbooks; they read what we give them. And, more and more, we will be giving them e-books.

I think the popularity of e-books is largely a matter of convenience. I love having hundreds of books at my disposal in a single hand-held device. Who wouldn’t? The question, however, when it comes to learning is, “What’s the best way to consume and retain textual information?” For that experience, I much prefer paper. And, apparently, so do many other people—including college students who really do have the highest burden for information retention from texts.

  1. Where do you see the use of E-books being used in the classroom in say, 5 years from now?

I think their use will increase with each passing year. We will probably never lose paper books entirely (at least in my lifetime). But the amount of information kids consume electronically will grow dramatically in proportion to the amount of information they consume through printed texts.

  1. Do you think teachers are more likely to use E-books in literature classes and have students read short stories and novels, as opposed to using it as a textbook?

As far as what schools choose to give to kids, I don’t think the subject is going to make much of a difference. I think it’s simply going to be cheaper and more convenient to use e-books. And I think schools, like individuals, are naturally attracted to things that are cheaper and more convenient. My concern is whether or not this is good for kids.

Clearly, more research is needed to determine this. But there seems to be a trend worth noting at the moment: while kids are reading more and more e-books, more and more research suggests that they retain information better when they read paper books.

So educators, and education itself, will be faced once again with the same choice we make around all technology: “Is it good for kids?” In the past, I don’t think we have a good track record of answering that question effectively, especially when the question is posed in the context of technology adoption for teaching and learning.

  1. What are some things you believe are cons when using E-books versus paper textbooks?

The comprehension of longer, more complicated, non-fiction texts, does seem to be a problem with e-books, and that’s my biggest concern for kids. (And for me, too, as I experienced when I worked on the Gates project.)

The biggest problem I’ve had as a teacher is that it takes so much more time for me to help kids locate certain parts of a book. The old, “Please turn to page X.” that we used to say almost every day, doesn’t always work with e-books, many of which do not have “page” numbering. And, even if they do, since font size and layout (e-books can usually read in portrait and landscape modes), getting everyone to the same place in an e-book can be a lot harder than it is with a paper book.

The other con that the studies seem to show with regard to college students is that they prefer the ability to mark up paper textbooks over the still rather clumsy ways we have of doing this in e-books.

  1. What about positive aspects?

What’s interesting to me is that the positive aspects are not about the reading experience. E-books are cheaper. But that’s not about the reading experience. E-books are more convenient. But, again, that’s not about the reading experience either.

This is because e-books really aren’t books. E-books actually don’t exist at all. We have digital texts and devices that can read them. And we have accounts, what are effectively “library cards”, that allow us to access digital texts, one screen at a time, through our devices.

But there are no “books” here.

Instead, there’s a screen-based reading device, internal and cloud-based storage, and a “library” of texts to choose from. There’s also the equivalent of a “library card” in the account credentials user’s have.

But there’s no actual book anywhere to be found.

I think that’s why all the advantages of “e-books” are about things that have little to do with reading. When it comes to reading, people tend to feel better and do better reading paper books.

  1. Do you think your newsletter would have been accepted as well if it were to be paper based, rather than electronically?

If the survey about magazine readers noted in the Nautilus article is true, then periodical publications are more popular in paper form. However, I could never afford to deliver my newsletter in paper form.

So it could be argued that in my case, comprehension of my text would zero were it not for my ability to send it out in electronic form, and that therefore, e-books are superior for comprehension.

However, I think that for very short publications—and my newsletter is typically under 1000 words—the retention of information is not fundamentally different. And the ability for me to include hyperlinks to additional information is a huge plus that paper books simply can’t provide.

That’s really the upshot of all of this: we need to stop thinking that there’s an equivalency between e-books and paper books. They’re two very different things.

Until we start use e-book technology to do all the things that it can do (like display interactive graphics, play videos, provide simulations), then we’re not really exploiting the advantages of the technological medium. That’s what I can do in my newsletter. And I hope we’ll see—amazing and helpful expressions of technology—in e-texts in the future.

In the future, we probably won’t be “reading” “e-books” at all. We’ll probably be using “apps”. That is to say that “books” will function more like pieces of software than as digital texts.

  1. Is there any research supporting the use of E-books?

I would imagine that there must be. But I haven’t seen them. I think, perhaps, that this might be related to the fact that the “E-books are better!” story is not quite as compelling to researchers as the “Real books are better!” story. We can only read the research that is produced. And researchers choose the questions that seem most important to them to answer. I think, right now, the most important question is how well human beings gain and retain information. And in this area, for now, it appears that paper books have an advantage.

  1. What have we neglected to ask ?

The question I have begun to ask myself is this: “What will happen as the profit motive collides with the “prophet” motive?”

We want kids to understand the past and the present so that they will better understand the future, just like prophets are said to understand the future. But it appears, at least for the time being, that less profitable paper books are better suited to this purpose. And as the history of global economics and culture tells us, “profits beat prophets every time.”

So who will have the courage to say, “I know e-books are cheaper and more convenient but I’d really like us to spend the money and deal with the hassle of paper books because our kids will probably learn more.”

Not too many people, I think.

So the next question is, “When will publishers begin to take full advantage of what can be done with information in digital form such that consuming digital information from hand-held devices becomes a better reading experience?” Certainly, more interactivity will come into electronic texts. But will this be done in a way that enhances learning? I’m not sure.

The last 40 years of education technology have told us one thing over and over again: people tend to be more interested in technology than in education.

With the explosion of education technology in recent years, we may, by sheer numbers of products and services created, stumble upon technology that really is superior in helping kids learns. But so far, we have little evidence to support that idea. And we have an extraordinary amount of research that refutes it.

This won’t always be the same. Technology doesn’t stand still. But I wonder if what we’ll realize about technology and education is that we end up suffering too often from “Shiny Object Syndrome” or the problem of being attracted to the next new thing as opposed to being attracted to the one old thing: learning.

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1 Comment

  1. Barry Stern

    Very thoughtful interview on the likely trade-offs between e-books vs. paper textbooks.

    A related topic worthy of investigation is whether students retain more vocabulary when looking up words in hardcopy dictionaries than when doing so online or with a CD dictionary. I once ran an employment-training program for unemployed low-skilled young adults where we compared the two practices. Our informal observations indicated better vocabulary retention when using hardcopy dictionaries, which used to fall apart from so much use (Students were required to look up words they didn’t know in their assigned readings; we called it our “leave no word behind” program.).

    Dr. Frank Wilson, Neurologist and author of “The Hand–how its use shapes the brain, language and human culture,” shares this sentiment. In his 1998 interview with David Gergen, CNN analyst and former White House spokesperson, Wilson said,
    “So we’re coming to the edge of a discovery, I think, about education, which is that you can’t really skip this experience. It’s important for children to have hands-on experience when they’re young. Music lessons, or playing with animals, there are any number of experiences that kids ought to have. But you can’t rush that. Biology took a long time to get us this gift that we have, this marriage of hand and mind, and it’s a mistake to ignore this.”

    Ignoring the importance of manual dexterity and experiential learning, as too many American schools have become prone to do, is harming the growth and development of our Nation’s youngsters. Using digital solutions to replace cursive writing and looking up words in hardcopy dictionaries might well impede rather than accelerate learning, especially for young children. Let’s not do this without extensive well-designed research on the subject.

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