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Everything you need to know about digital textbooks

More and more school districts are replacing printed textbooks with digital versions. We’ve broken down all the details about digital textbooks.
Everything you need to know about digital textbooks
Everything you need to know about digital textbooks

Taking after universities and colleges, K-12 school districts are increasingly adopting digital textbooks. Before the COVID-19 pandemic closed down in-person classes, digital resources and tools were helpful in teaching and learning. Students now use school-issued devices and mobile devices to access digital texts and tools. Let’s take a deep dive into digital textbooks and how educators and learners can use them in K-12.

What is a digital textbook?

A digital textbook is an electronic form of a traditional, printed textbook. Teachers and students can use them in any learning environment, whether face-to-face or remote. Students can download a digital textbook or access it online on devices like Chromebooks, iPads, computers and their phones. Some e-textbooks are simply digitized versions of printed books, while others have interactive features that increase engagement and comprehension.

What is the history of e-books?

Bob Brown

While e-books may seem like a modern invention, the concept goes back almost a century. In 1930, writer Bob Brown explained his idea for ebooks. He called them “readies” after the popular movie term “talkies,” which were movies with sound. He declared that “readies,” books available to read on a screen, should be produced. 

He said, “To continue reading at today’s speed, I must have a machine. A simple machine which I can carry or move around.” He also wrote that people should be able to adjust the font size. He was ahead of his time—readers and learners today can change the font size of their digital books.

Angela Ruiz Robles

In 1949 Angela Ruiz Robles, a teacher in Spain, invented the “Mechanical Encyclopedia.” It’s considered a precursor to a digital reading device. Because her students carried heavy books to and from school, she wanted to literally lighten their loads. She invented a device that used spools of printed text and later included audio recordings, a reading light and a calculator. While her prototype never went into production, the idea was significant.

Michael S. Hart

The credit for the first modern e-book goes to Michael S. Hart. When he was a college student in 1971, he had access to a mainframe computer in a research lab at the University of Illinois. The mainframe processed data and was connected to an early form of the internet called ARPAnet. 

At a grocery store, someone gave him a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. He decided to type it up on the computer and share it through ARPAnet, which 100 people could access. That file is now considered the first e-book. 

Hart continued to produce other electronic versions of texts and eventually created Project Gutenberg. The site offers thousands of free public domain texts, or open educational resources (OER), which teachers can use for digital instruction. 

In 1999 Hart told the Chicago Tribune, “Listen, there are two things in the world that are truly, totally free with an endless supply: the air we breathe and the texts on Project Gutenberg.”

Where can you get digital versions of textbooks?

Education publishers

Education publishers in the K-12 market are now commonly offering digital versions of their textbooks. Some publishers have even switched entirely to digital. The electronic versions are available by subscription for the school year or longer.

Open-source textbooks

Educators can also find open-source digital textbooks online that are free to use. These digital textbooks are sometimes edited by a community or offered on OER sites. In this case, it’s important to verify that the textbook is high-quality and reliable. Educators can also create their own open-source textbooks and share them online. 

Are digital textbooks cheaper?

Using digital textbooks in schools is less expensive than buying printed textbooks. There aren’t costs related to printing, warehouse storage or shipping. Publishers also don’t have to deal with the loss of revenue due to unsold printed textbooks. By allowing schools to subscribe to e-books, a publisher’s revenue stream remains steady. That enables them to offer digital versions at a more affordable price. Of course, school districts can also use open-source textbooks, which are completely free.

Can students study better using digital textbooks?

Publishers are now offering teachers and learners enhanced e-textbooks. Instead of just digitizing the print version, they add interactive features to engage learners. Students can customize font style and size and background color on their device. By using an enhanced e-textbook, they can also access tools such as bookmarking, highlighting in various colors, note taking, text-to-speech and dictionaries. 

External links are added throughout the text that give learners more information about a topic. Videos, animations, interactive charts, audio clips and interactive maps are also included throughout the book. 

Additionally, learners can take advantage of the quick search function. They can type in a vocabulary term or topic and instantly find content. Their notes and highlighting also sync to other devices they use, which makes studying even more practical. Digital textbooks also include interactive assessments throughout chapters to help learners study at any time.

Are digital textbooks better overall?


There are many digital textbook benefits for K-12 schools and districts. First, schools distribute them more equitably and easily than traditional textbooks. Teachers and students can download them instantly on their devices. 

With digital versions, there’s no need to keep track of physical textbooks for every subject and grade level. Schools don’t have to pass out all those books to students and collect them at the end of the year.Plus, the supplemental texts and workbooks that often come with traditional books are embedded into digital versions. That means everything a learner needs is on one device.

Access and portability

Another considerable benefit of e-textbooks is that teachers and learners can access them on multiple devices. Instead of carrying heavy physical textbooks from place to place, students can learn from anywhere. For example, they can access the content in a classroom, at home during remote learning, at the library or  a friend’s place during a study session. Finally, learners don’t have to worry about forgetting their book on the bus or leaving it at school. 


Digital textbooks also don’t take up physical space, so schools don’t have to find space to stack them up and store them. There’s also no need to monitor lost or damaged books. That time can add up when a school has to keep track of physical textbooks for each student in every subject and grade level. While educators do need to keep track of school-issued devices, there are fewer items to monitor and they’re easier to locate.


Digital textbooks can be updated much more quickly than traditional textbooks. It may be years before printed textbooks are updated to reflect current events and culture. Once traditional books are updated, school districts then have to order them and wait for delivery for a new school year. Alternatively, the information in digital textbooks can be refreshed instantly. Students may need to download a new version on their device, but otherwise there is no wait time.

Environmental impact

Another advantage of digital textbooks is the positive impact they have on the environment. Printed textbooks are made of paper and once a school district adopts new textbooks, they typically throw out the older versions. While the books could be donated or recycled, the continuous cycle of printing traditional textbooks causes many of trees to be cut down. E-textbooks, on the other hand, don’t harm any trees.

How can learners succeed with digital textbooks?

While students are digital natives using devices in their day-to-day personal lives, they may not know how to use all the tools found in digital textbooks. Educators should model how to use parts of the e-textbook and explain how to use them the right way to boost learning. Tools that need modeling could include:

  • digital table of contents
  • quick search function
  • annotation
  • highlighting
  • dictionary
  • interactive graphs

Learners may also collaborate with their teacher and their peers when using digital textbooks. Interactive textbooks allow learners to share notes, and teachers can give feedback. Teachers can help students collaborate to deepen their learning with expectations clearly communicated.

Explore why educators are reviving the #GoOpen initiative to increase access to free high-quality learning materials.

The GoOpen initiative ebook

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