Is this the end of print textbooks?

Why a move from print to digital by the world’s largest publisher of educational books could spell disaster for students

Recently there was a troubling story published on the BBC website: ‘Education publisher Pearson to phase out print textbooks.’ It’s troubling, not only for the print industry, but for millions of students, teachers, parents, and everyone that has an interest in the education and development of young people around the world.

Story time

The story is that Pearson, the world’s largest publisher of educational books, is moving towards being a ‘digital-first’ publisher. It will start to phase out print textbooks in favor of their digital versions, with students offered a digital subscription service to receive the latest, updated versions of the books.

“The history of this business is as a college textbook publisher, and over the last 20 years, like many of the other industries like newspapers and music publishing, we’ve seen a gradual shift from digital where over time digital has become a more important part of the offering,” said John Fallon, the CEO of Pearson. “We’ve really reached a tipping point.”

What this means for students and teachers is that there will be an immediate and significant decrease in the amount of new, updated textbooks available in print – from 500 to 100. Over a short space of time, the number of new books will go down to zero, forcing students online for the latest versions. Considering Pearson currently has over 1,500 titles in print, this is a dramatic and potentially disastrous move that could affect the entire education sector.

The benefits of print

At Two Sides, we talk a lot about the benefits of print to consumers – the sustainability, the tactility, the sheer pleasure of turning the page. But print doesn’t just provide consumers with a pleasant reading and recycling experience, it plays a key role in the development and education of young people.

From a very early age, print has proven benefits in helping children to interact with a story, process the ideas and comprehend the characters and the story. In a 2013 study, researchers found that children between the ages of 3 and 5, whose parents read to them from an electronic book, had lower reading comprehension than children whose parents used traditional books. Part of the reason was that parents seemed to spend more time adjusting the device or pressing buttons than focusing on the story.

When the child then goes into education, there have been a number of studies that show that learning from a print book improves their understanding of a subject as well as factual retention and recall. As the child goes through the education system and the subjects become more complex, print has the advantage of being a ‘slow’ medium, allowing the student to progress at their own pace, free of distractions. And, of course, you can’t scrawl notes in the margins of a laptop.

Students prefer paper

However, the group most likely to be affected by the Pearson move are students in higher education, the young people that rely the most on up-to-date textbooks. Whatever course they’re taking, those in universities and colleges learn from a wide range of books, and it’s been proven that the vast majority prefer to learn from those books in print form.

A global study by Naomi Baron, a Professor of Linguistics at American University in Washington DC, asked over 300 university students in the US, Japan, Germany and Slovakia which media they preferred for ‘serious’ reading, and found that 92% of concentrate best in hard copy.

“There are two big issues with e-reading,” said Professor Baron. “The first was [the students] say they get distracted, pulled away to other things. The second had to do with eye strain and headaches and physical discomfort.”

“My major concern, as a person in higher education, is that we’re not listening. We’re assuming we’re being helpful by lowering price, by making it more convenient, by helping the environment, but we don’t bother asking our students what they think.”

A closely watched move

The Pearson announcement has grave implications not only for students, but for the educational print industry. As the world’s largest publisher in education, Pearson has a huge influence over the sector, and other publishers, including those in fiction and non-fiction, will be looking closely at what happens over the next few years to decide whether to pursue a similar digital-first strategy.

For the moment, students have a healthy second-hand market to get their hands on print textbooks, but it won’t be long until the information in those books is out of date. In making the move away from print, Pearson are potentially damaging the education of millions of children and students around the world. And no amount of corporate cost-saving can justify that.

Article by Sam Upton

Photo credit: @zephyr_p –