Are Textbooks Relevant in the Digital Learning Age?

A key question for designers of professional certification materials is, “Are textbooks relevant today?”

Dylan Fedy recently interviewed learning designer Atena Bishka about the evolution of learning materials. Atena and Dylan work for CSI, the Canadian Securities Institute. CSI, a part of Moody’s Analytics Learning Solutions, is a provider of financial services credentials and learning programs. The CSI courses cover a range of financial content areas from securities and portfolio management to financial planning and high-net-worth wealth management. Courses are offered in a variety of formats, leveraging digital technology and pedagogical tools to enable anytime, anywhere learning access and meet the changing needs of learners and their organizations.

Dylan and Atena explore where we are in the evolution of learning materials and come to some interesting conclusions.

Learning materials—getting and holding attention

Dylan Fedy: Atena, as an instructional designer, you are involved with the design of courses for financial services professionals. It’s 2018, and in spite of the rapid advances in EdTech and eLearning, we continue to offer textbooks as learning tools. How would you describe what has changed and what has stayed the same with how people read and work through learning materials?

Atena Bishka: Reading certainly is different now and is medium-dependent. In the technology-dominated world, the act of reading by flipping a book’s pages, gazing undistractedly from left to right, top to bottom, patiently going down paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence, gets replaced. Instead, while reading a page increasingly becomes viewing a screen, learners are now scrolling, scanning, switching tabs, looking for keywords, skipping, and skimming around. Back in the days when books were only available in print, reading was a solitary activity, which required linearity, logic, and paying attention. A reader learning from the printed text would ask themselves “Does what I just read make sense? Does this follow?”

The traditional-media monopoly on the delivery of information and learning no longer exists. Today no technology can claim monopoly on attention. Quite the opposite. The designers of phones and apps are masters at seizing our attention. In the digital space there are endless temptations and notifications staging a veritable feast of clickbaits and neural “blings”—all fighting for our attention, which is a limited and fragile mental resource. As a consequence, either as learners or learning designers, we rarely pause to ask “Does this follow?” Instead, we tend to worry far more about “Does this grab you?” There is a difference between these two questions. Reading content that “follows” implies looking at the information critically for coherence and consistency in concepts and ideas. By contrast, content that “grabs you” elicits emotional appeal; it responds to learner needs and preferences, is usually succinct in design, and is conveyed in concrete and simple language. Well aware of such distinctions, the challenge for practitioners and learning specialists is to create learning content that answers both questions with “yes.”

Is the future all digital?

Dylan: So EdTech, and digital tools in general, do a fine job of snatching our attention … and maybe a less good job of holding it. Keeping that in mind, as you do your course design work, surely there are many places where technology enhances learning. After all, you can’t expect anyone to learn anything if you haven’t first gotten their attention, can you?

Atena: Of course, there are plenty of digital learning tools we use, and these capture a great deal of interest from learning and development leaders. I’ve been involved with hosting learning conferences and symposiums, and when we ask participants what future topics they would like to see covered, participants often respond “learning technology and digital tools.” Indeed, financial services organizations are investing in EdTech. And so they should be. They are well aware of the power, growing influence, and appeal of technology, and are keen to strengthening employee engagement. As learning professionals, we are always on the lookout for innovative and cost-effective technology solutions that promise to create engaging learning experiences that could close knowledge gaps faster. And everyone seems to agree that the future belongs to technology; that the future is digital. But, having said this, in spite of the appeal of learning technology and the relative lack of excitement for printed textbooks, they nevertheless still earn their important and enduring place in the modern learning toolbox.

Are textbooks an endangered species?

Dylan: Despite the “printed book is dead” prophecy, it seems you’re saying that rumors of the demise of the textbook have been greatly exaggerated. When given a choice, though, do students choose to buy textbooks?

Atena: Far from being dead, printed books in general is a growing business. In 2016, US print book sales grew three percent. Textbooks are still the most popular choice of students. The Student Watch report Attitudes and Behavior toward Course Materials 2016-2017 showed that 74 percent of students bought new textbooks compared to only 23 percent who bought digital course materials (Figure 1).

Student Watch is conducted online with more than 41,000 students across the US and Canada participating.

2017 course materials

Figure 1: In 2017, 74 percent of students in North America bought textbooks

This is no different from what we have learned at the Canadian Securities Institute. It is commonplace to hear how the generation of digital natives prefers learning with electronic devices, videos, and interactive electronic platforms. However, our data indicates that among CSI students in pursuit of financial designation and certification, the preference to learn from financial textbooks remains strong and steady.

This isn’t something that we merely infer or say lightly. It is what our learners tell us, too. At CSI, with a course enrollment, students get access to a digital textbook. Our data indicates that about 60 percent of learners choose to buy a printed textbook as well. But there is more. To measure and improve the extent to which our courses measure up to the learning needs of financial services professionals, CSI conducts learning effectiveness surveys. The 2016 and 2017 survey results indicate that textbooks (printed or online PDF formats) represent the top preferred learning choice for a whopping majority of more than 85 percent of survey respondents, followed by in-class instruction and webcasts, which ranked as their second or third preferred learning choice.

Counterintuitively, in spite of the efforts to accommodate learner and customer preferences, such as training delivery format styles, technology styles, and teaching styles, it looks like the bulky textbooks, as information and knowledge acquiring tools, are here to stay.

Textbooks on screen vs. printed textbooks

Dylan: It’s easy to see the appeal of digital textbooks; the material is available everywhere I carry my phone, I can copy and paste and highlight text, I can search the material for keywords. What do you think explains the enduring appeal of printed textbooks?

Atena: I can tell you one use of the digital PDFs that we know some students appreciate is being able to print sections of the book to use conveniently without having to carry around the full book. Moreover, a textbook is pretty reliable, will never need login and password, is free from any glitches and web page malfunctioning, has high-resolution, and will never run out of battery. More importantly, striving to absorb abstract and complex financial content requires setting aside blocks of hours of reading for comprehension in an undistracted way. It requires patience, capacity for reflection, persistence to figure out complexity, and, above all, attention and willingness to suspend distractions. Remember, digital devices are remarkable at getting attention, less so at holding it.

To engage with complex information and internalize abstract knowledge—which is crucial to successfully pass CSI licensing and designation course exams—is to engage primarily with written words, which means following lines of thoughts, one at a time. This requires efforts to classify, to make inferences, and to reason. It also means detecting possible contradictions, weighing and assessing ideas, comparing and contrasting assertions, connecting generalizations characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas. Feedback from our learners suggests that it is the textbook that provides such necessary context that enables knowledge acquisition and optimal learning experience.

Most preferred learning format vs. most effective

Dylan: What do we know about the effectiveness of learning from textbooks?

Atena: It is probably not news to say that most students, educators, [and] policymakers feel that students’ strong attachment and familiarity with technology means that technology (the newer and more advanced the better) leads to better learning results. However, research shows that preferences for technology, just like other preferences, such as learning styles, do not necessarily translate into better learning. Alexander and Singer Trakhman [see References] reviewed the research conducted from 1992 until now—so that’s almost 25 years’ worth of data. They report that the research indicates “that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length” compared to digital formats. The researchers also conducted three studies to further explore their findings and discovered that comprehension, including correct answering for specific questions, was better for print compared to digital reading.

This is not to say that information and knowledge offered in print format is always better. That’s just not true. From an instructional design perspective, the format will always depend on several factors including:

  • The purpose of training. Is the purpose to provide a general and short overview or is the training more involved and leading to licensing, a certification, or a designation?
  • The type of content. Is the content complex and highly abstract, or is it essentially concrete and practical?
  • The task analysis. Is the learner required to become aware of and familiar with an idea, or is a deeper engagement necessary, perhaps to pass a regulatory exam? Are the expected knowledge and skills of low or high stakes

Are textbooks relevant in today’s world? From a learning design perspective, there is, of course, no “one size fits all” solution. Creating effective learning experiences requires a well-thought-out combination of learning strategies and formats. The time-tested printed textbook does have an important role to play. This will come as no surprise to the CSI learners who, in their high-stakes financial services courses, have been clear with us about their preferences.


Alexander, Patricia A, and Lauren M. Singer Trakhman. “Evidence Shows Students Still Learn More Effectively From Print Textbooks Than Screens.” The Conversation. 3 October 2017.

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