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Textbook Trends: How U.S. College Students Source Course Materials

3 minute read | August 2016

As anyone who has been on a college campus recently can tell you, digital platforms and devices have fundamentally transformed the undergraduate and graduate experience. However, a very old school format—the traditional print textbook—still remains the most popular format for course materials with U.S. students.

More than two-thirds (69%) of total expenditure on course textbooks continues to go towards print materials, according to data from Nielsen’s U.S. Student Attitudes Towards Content in Higher Education report.

The research, which was based on data from interviews of over 1,800 students in two- and four-year academic institutions, found some 39% of spend goes to new print materials, 17% to used print materials and 13% to rented print materials.

Just 31% of students’ course material spend currently goes to digital formats (22% digital purchases and 9% digital rentals).

Why does print remain so popular? In large part because students say it is still the better format in key areas, including ease of reading and ease of highlighting/annotating.

However, digital materials have their advantages too, with students saying they are easier to carry, more environmentally friendly, and are better able to incorporate elements such as animations.

The use of digital course materials may be in part be due to general device trends. Some 88% of students continue to use a desktop or laptop computer or hybrid device for at least one course’s coursework, whereas just 32% use a tablet. However, mobile phones offer the potential for growth, with more than half of students saying they now use a smartphone for coursework for at least one course.

Although students are divided on device usage and format preferences when it comes to course materials, one thing is nearly universal: cost consciousness. College students are very selective in acquiring course materials because of limited budgets.

Campus bookstores remain the top retail channel for buying textbooks for at least one course. Some 34% of students say they use their university’s store (online and offline), with convenience and speed of supply cited as the key benefits. Amazon is the second most used purchase channel (28% of students).

However, daunting costs have also led students to seek out alternative methods for finding texts such as borrowing, renting or illegally downloading material (16% of those who don’t buy course materials for a specific course say they have illegally downloaded course materials from torrent sites).

One relatively new format that may accelerate the move to digital while helping with costs is open educational resources (OER). One in four students said that one of their courses had required the use of OER resources, which are legally free to use and distribute to others on public open file sharing sites.

Another digital approach is the use of integrated learning systems (ILS). These digital platforms provide interactive instructional content based on each student’s particular needs and rate of progress. Three in five students were using an ILS for at least one course. Features were uniformly highly rated, including aiding with studying for exams, making it easier to complete assignments, and providing better preparation for classes—and 64% they would likely recommend the approach.

Ultimately, this could mean that print textbooks may not be overtaken by digital textbooks, but instead may be replaced by something completely different. However, with actionable insights into students’ studying and coursework behaviors, academic publishers and retailers can stay ahead of these trends.

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