What Publishers Can Do to Increase Learning in Digital Textbooks

Focus, comprehension, and critical thinking are shallower when one is reading on a digital device rather than on paper. An Insider article with Patricia Alexander and Lauren Singer showed that reading is faster on a device than on paper. Most people tend to skim through the text in order to find the “answer” rather than closely reading the text.

Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of print books, we live in a digital age. Many students use free, or even illegal sites to get their textbooks because of the rising costs of education. While e-textbooks are significantly cheaper, that price cut simply cannot compare to a free resource when the student is getting the same experience. Digital textbooks must go beyond simply offering the text and give students an immersive and intuitive approach to learning that has adapted to the digital world.

Limit amount of text on a page

One of the biggest obstacles to close reading in a digital format is text overload, especially when it is formatted as a big block of text. Something that gives digital textbooks an edge over sites like Project Gutenberg is the ability to break up text. Project Gutenberg is popular among students for its free and legal access to many required readings; however, the site is clunky and the HTML format means that the student is forced to read through a wall of text.


Scrolling is one of the worst things a student can do when trying to read online. Even if the student has put away their phone, scrolling through their required reading is one of the biggest distractions for a student. In a study done by Pablo Delgado, Cristina Vargas, Rakefet Ackerman, and Ladislao Salmeron, “scrolling may add a cognitive load to the reading task by making spatial orientation to the text more difficult for readers than learning from printed text.” The mind diverts attention that could be used for comprehension to tracking the text as the reader scrolls, telling the finger to scroll, and when to stop scrolling.


If scrolling is bad, how do publishers fit all the information on the page? Well, they don’t. The best way to help a reader digest information is to limit the amount of information on the page. According to Laura Singer, any more than 500 words on a digital “page” will overload the reader and impact comprehension. You eliminate text overload by fitting a section to a page. This also carries the added benefit of geospatial recognition that is similar to print books.


The physicality of print books is something that has been increasingly hard to replicate on the digital scale. The geographical place of text within a codex is a key point in how students remember details and it is extremely difficult to digitally replicate. This is where headings come in. Headings and subheadings help to position the reader in the text and break up the text into easier-to-digest sections.

Remove Distractions

The biggest edge that print books have over digital books is their lack of distractions. Many digital textbooks must be accessed online, which requires the student to navigate to a search engine, type in the name of the publisher, log in, and access the textbook. Not only does this limit study time to times where the student has access to the internet, but there are so many opportunities for students to get distracted. It would be easier for students to access their text through an app that allows offline access.

The use of flashy colors and animations can succeed at grabbing a student’s focus, but they can also steal attention away from the material. This is the same concept as scrolling. When the brain has to take in any kind of movement and read a text, comprehension is going to be compromised.

Offer Customizations

The largest benefit over both print books and free websites is customization. The ability to customize the textual space goes beyond aesthetics. Accessibility is easiest in the digital format, where one can quickly change between fonts, colors, and text size. A student with dyslexia can change to a font that better supports reading. A visually challenged student, or a student that learns better through auditory input, can use a text-to-speech feature.

The ability to take notes in the margins is an important part of gaining a deeper understanding of the text; however digital textbooks are unable to provide comparable in-text note taking features. The options are so abysmal that the UNC Learning Center suggests creating a word document for each individual chapter, or writing notes out on a separate sheet of paper. These options take away valuable time and focus from comprehending the text. Furthermore, these options will quickly become bloated and confusing. Publishers must develop an in-text note taking and annotation system in order to have an edge over print books and free resources.

There are benefits and drawbacks to every type of textbook, but the purpose behind every one of them is the same: To help students learn. Education is rapidly moving towards a digital model and students demand textbooks that can keep up.