Digital College Textbooks: Cost-Effective Solutions for Online College Students

digital college textbooks

Although a major contributor, tuition is only one of the many costs associated with college. When pursuing a degree, you must allocate a budget for textbooks, materials, and other essential resources.

The cost of textbooks in the United States is spiraling out of control. In fact, textbook prices are higher than inflation. According to the Education Data Initiative, they increase by an average of 6% each year.

Its rapid increase leaves students with no choice but to fork out the cash or miss out on learning. They hunt for cheaper options like used books or illegal copies. Retailers have even observed students reading in book aisles before exams, which lowers the store’s overall sales.

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But despite students’ cries for affordable textbooks, publishers haven’t shown much sympathy. Instead, they keep finding new ways to hike up prices and make it harder for students to find cheaper alternatives.

Fortunately,  there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon in the form of digital college textbooks. These resources are 32% cheaper than printed textbooks. The cost-saving benefits of digital textbooks in schools allow students to divide their budgets more effectively.

Why Digital Textbooks Are Gaining Popularity

The pandemic shook things up, especially in higher education. Now, it’s all about digital learning. But even before all this, education tech was on the rise. In 2019, global investments hit $18.66 billion; by 2025, the online or digital-based education market is projected to soar to $350 billion.

Online education is here to stay. For good reasons, it’s even anticipated to have a bigger market and demand than traditional brick-and-mortar learning.

The cost of living in the United States is rapidly increasing. However, wages aren’t keeping pace. This economic reality has made it harder for many students, especially those underprivileged, to pursue higher education.

Many students have to work to make ends meet. But if they’re already having trouble covering basic expenses, how can they focus on studying?

This is where digital learning comes in.

Digital learning offers students a better alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar education, addressing many challenges they face in today’s economic landscape. This learning modality utilizes digital resources, such as digital textbooks.

Digital textbooks’ benefits outweigh printed learning materials. They’re low-cost, more accessible, and portable. Digital college books allow you to learn anywhere without the need to carry heavy bags.

Types of Digital Textbook Alternatives

First off, what is a digital textbook?

A digital textbook is like an online version of a regular school book. You can read it on devices like computers, tablets, or e-readers. It has the same stuff as a regular book but on a screen, and sometimes it has cool things like videos or quizzes. People like digital textbooks because they’re easy to use, you can get them anywhere, and they can make learning more fun.

Here are some of the most commonly used digital textbooks online by colleges and universities:


Electronic or ebooks are publications consisting of text and graphics created, published, and readable on computers or other digital devices. They offer several features that make them convenient and versatile for readers:

  1. They can be stored or accessed on electronic devices.
  2. Readers can customize the text size and font style.
  3. They often come with features that enable users to search for certain keywords or phrases within the text.
  4. Some e-books include multimedia/interactive elements.
  5. They also include annotation and highlighting features.

There are a lot of different eBook formats available if you look for them. Here are the top versions used in colleges; they’re well-known for being user-friendly:

  • PDF (Portable Document Format)

PDF ensures consistency in content appearance across devices. It incorporates fonts into the document, making it readable even if the font isn’t installed on the device. PDF maintains a fixed layout, unlike other ebook formats, displaying the same on all devices.

  • MOBI (Mobipocket eBook file)

The MOBI file format, previously used exclusively by Amazon for Kindle readers, offered faster loading times due to its compressed size compared to EPUB. However, since 2023, EPUB has become the primary format for Kindle devices. Both newer and older Kindles now support EPUB with firmware updates.

Kindle devices and apps automatically convert EPUB files to AZW in Kindle format. While books from Kindle Direct Publishing are in AZW, most online ebooks now use the EPUB extension.

  • EPUB (Electronic Publication)

This is the most widely used ebook format. It is renowned for its adaptability and compatibility with various gadgets, including PCs, tablets, smartphones, and e-readers. EPUB works on websites’ principles using a compiled HTML format. Unlike the fixed-layout PDF file format, it adjusts to the size of your device, exactly like web pages do. You can enlarge fonts, and the e-reader will display according to your preferences.

Other online textbooks for college formats include:

  • Microsoft Reader
  • DJVU format

This type of virtual textbook offers significant savings compared to printed textbooks. Unlike traditional books, e-books for online college students do not have shipping and packing fees, paper printing costs, or book covers.

Online Resources

Many colleges and universities also use various online resources to supplement traditional textbooks. Some of them are standalone learning materials. These tools provide students with various engaging and interactive learning opportunities across multiple formats and platforms.

  • Open Educational Resources (OERs)

OERs are FREE online educational materials. They include textbooks, lecture notes, syllabi, quizzes, and multimedia resources. The best OER sources include OER Commons, MERLOT, OpenStax, and MIT OpenCourseWare.

  • Online Libraries

These resources offer a vast collection of digital resources, including scholarly articles, e-books, journals, and databases.

  • Subscription Services

Colleges use online services like Chegg, Course Hero, and Scribd for textbooks, tutorials, and study materials. They tailor resources to specific courses, offering flexibility and convenience for a flat fee.

Advantages of Digital Textbooks Over Printed Textbooks

Although digital textbooks vs. printed textbooks offer distinct advantages, the former seems to win from several angles. Here are the major benefits of digital textbooks.

Cost savings and affordability

The major reason for its popularity is its cost-saving benefits. Digital college books do not incur printing and distribution costs, significantly reducing their price compared to traditional printed textbooks.

Accessibility anytime, anywhere

Digital textbooks provide instant access to learning materials, removing barriers to education. They’re also more engaging. Distance and disabled students will especially benefit from this accessibility.

Digital textbooks spare students from the burden of carrying around bags. All their learning materials fit neatly onto a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. This flexibility means students can study wherever they roam – on the bus, during travels, or in various study spots.

Environmentally friendly

Digital textbooks also reduce paper consumption, which helps conserve trees and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, digital textbooks lower the carbon footprint associated with printing, shipping, and storage.

Enhanced learning through interactive features

It is easy to update and edit digital textbooks to reflect recent developments and trends in a subject. On the other hand, traditional paper textbooks are not up to date and might not contain the most recent material. With the ease and speed with which digital textbooks may be updated, students are guaranteed access to the most current and accurate information accessible.

Additionally, digital textbooks allow for more interactive learning. They frequently include multimedia tools that can improve students’ learning and engagement. Some of them integrate films, animations, and interactive tests.

How to Access Digital Textbooks

In some cases, the college or university will help you locate the digital textbook you need. They have people that will guide you in finding the right resources. Nevertheless, having your own strategy for accessing digital textbooks can also be beneficial. Here are places where you can find digital textbooks:

  • College Library or Bookstore
  • Learning Management Systems (LMS)
  • College E-Library Resources: Partnerships with services like ProQuest offer online access to texts
  • College-Specific Platform: They’re mostly available on their own website
  • Open Educational Resources (OER): Websites like OpenStax provide free textbooks

You can also search for digital textbooks by using their International Standard Book Number (ISBN).

Here are a few reminders when buying or renting digital textbooks:

  1. Compare prices, options, discounts, and rental periods.
  2. Ensure compatibility with devices and preferred reading formats, and check for app or software options.
  3. Evaluate whether a subscription service aligns with your textbook needs and study habits.
  4. Know the deadlines for returns, conditions for refunds, and any associated fees or penalties.
  5. Check reviews and ratings of external platforms to ensure reliability and customer satisfaction.


When you weigh the pros and cons of digital/e-books vs. traditional textbooks, digital ones come out ahead for several reasons. Firstly, they help students save a lot of money, freeing up cash for essential expenses like tuition. On top of that, digital textbooks are super easy to access and use. You can study wherever you are, which is a huge plus for busy students.