The majority of my students are finally becoming internet equipped. (This is kind of a big deal here in India). Whenever I start a new session, students ask me to recommend a textbook for them. I use my own experience and recommend a basic book and an advanced book, and online references.

However, in the last few weeks, an additional question is being asked. They ask me, "Sir, should I go for an ebook or a paper book"

Being in software training, almost everything I have is digital. Yet, when I decided to learn iOS programming 3 months ago, I decided to go for a printed book. However, I also see the appeal of eBooks as in individual, seeing how my kindle filled with dozens of novels. For my students though, I am not sure what I should tell them and why.

Additional considerations.

  • eBooks are usually cheaper compared to their printed counterparts. Sometimes, the printed versions are simply not available or take too long to ship.
  • Further, since most books can be read in a browser, lot of students share their accounts (kind of like how folks share there Netflix password) so that more people can read expensive books.

Update : Folks, just want to add that I posted this question hoping for a definitive answer. However, I have now been schooled that, expecting a definitive is perhaps not the right approach. So, if possible, please help me with definitive answers but I acknowledge answers that are focused on providing insight instead of being definitive.

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    $\begingroup$ Note this is an education question, it is not a computer-science-education question. But I still like it (I am not saying it should be closed). Just because we use a computer for something does not make it more computer science. “Computer science is about computers, in the same why that astronomy is about telescopes, or poetry is about pens.” $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ just to add some clarity. You would be surprised how many 'computer classes' are conducted where I live, without actual computers. If it wasn't actually very sad, I would actually laugh about it. At least where I live, the only place where I can assume that my students will have access to computers and internet (and hence ebooks are a feasible option) are only in a computer class. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ You can study astronomy without a telescope, and poetry with out a pen. see cs unplugged. It is often better that way. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ I tell my students: whichever you learn best from (or whichever is more affordable). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ its true about the astronomy without telescope thing. I am agreeing with you on that. My question is more for a target audience that is willing (rather insisting) to buy the telescope, and I am just trying to figure out if they want a real telescope or a virtual on. I did not have to deal with the real or virtual a year ago, but now I do. Hence the dilemma. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 3:50

6 Answers 6


Cost can be a HUGE burden on a student or school with textbook prices being absolutely ridiculous.

I think one has to consider how the student will actually be using the book(s). How many times does a textbook go unopened for an entire semester or only brought out due to a required reading.

Do you actually use a textbook lock step with the instruction, is it a reference to be used by the student as needed or is it an alternate source that might present the material in a manner that differs from the instructor so as to provide another option if the student is having trouble?

At the end of the day, I try to use either freely available books or resources. Does a kid really need an algorithms book or would a combination of web sites with descriptions, pseudocode and animations be preferable?

I personally like print books but find myself going less and less to them and more and more to finding my own resources via web search. I don't expect my students to possess the same level of search-fu but given how my students work, I think the free online resource is a much better course to take for my situation. Of course other situations can merit other approaches.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you actually use a textbook lock step with the instruction - No is it a reference to be used by the student as needed Yes. or is it an alternate source that might present the material in a manner that differs from the instructor so as to provide another option if the student is having trouble? No. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 14:41

I would recommend a mixed strategy. There are two sorts of books that are appropriate for e-books, I think. The first category is books that you need now, but wouldn't intend to keep. This includes books in subjects that are less important to your main objectives. In the US, at the undergraduate level, it might mean books that are required in subjects other than your major subject. The second category of books suitable for e-books is those that you expect to always be available in some form over time. Great literature and philosophy are in this category. But if you would intend to discard a book after a year or two, the cheapest alternative is likely appropriate.

I don't have faith that the e-book formats and their readers will continue to be available in an upgradeable way. Suppose you have a very important e-book that depends on some particular format or device and the company supporting that format decides to abandon it. You may not have access to those bits in 20 years or so. That is especially the case for those with DRM "protection."

So, the category of books that you should consider getting on paper are those that are most important to your goals. If you study CS, that would mean the books in the core areas at least. If you later want to refresh your memory those books will still be on your shelf (with reasonable care, of course). You will be familiar with them. Perhaps you have personal annotations in them. For e-books it may be easy (should be easy) to annotate in place, but I don't think that is universally done at this time. So your notes may be separate from the text and it is up to you to keep them synchronized and harder for you to review.

Of course, for such important books, you might consider having both formats, an e-book you can carry on your daily commute and paper for serious study. Some books that you purchase on paper also give you automatic access to an electronic version, or at least to additional electronic resources at no cost.

Note that one advantage of e-books is that some of them at least are updated with corrected versions and new editions. Some of these are at no cost, I've noticed. That is an advantage you don't get with paper.

On the other hand, I still have, and occasionally reference, important books I used as an undergraduate in the 1960s. I also have some of my hand written notes from then and through graduate school. I haven't had to worry about obsolescence of format or device. Some of those books are classics that went out of print and the replacements are not of the same caliber.

You should note that the paper text books you get from established publishers in technical fields will probably only be published for a few years. Text book publishers value the new over the old. If that happens to e-books then you become especially dependent on the devices you now own, but which you will likely want to replace in a few years. It isn't especially costly for a publisher to continue to make old e-books available, but they need to take the trouble to do so - as well as the trouble to update formats as they change.

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    $\begingroup$ To add some clarity, the folks (students) I interact will rarely if ever dig deeper into computer historical books. At best, they are looking at a book to be used for the duration of the training course, and then may be use that book till they get a job (or a promotion if they already have the job). Then, they might end up using the book as a reference during their job. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 3:45

It is impossible to say which is best, but here are some things to consider.

Some factors: paper books vs e-books

  • Paper books can be passed on (sold) to pupils in the next year.
  • E-books can be searched (Depending on Digital Restrictive Management (DRM) ). Sometimes they are less searchable, than paper books. Therefore consider e-books for reference material, but check DRM.
  • Paper books can be kept for years. (If what the book teaches is not timeless, then it is not worth knowing. With the exception of some reference books. See above.)
  • E-books can be shared (Depending on DRM).
  • Paper books can be written on, and highlighted. (Some times e-books can as well, depending on DRM).
  • E-books are lighter, easier to carry.
  • Paper books seem easier to read, when you are reading from beginning to end.
  • E-books can be transported at the speed of light (nearly).
  • Paper books can easily have more than one bookmark, and you can use your fingers as a book mark.
  • E-books can have video and audio.
  • Paper books don't need recharging.

E-books and “using a computer”, is not computer science. So do not do it because you think that it is more computer science.

  • $\begingroup$ With respect to specifically about DRM, I have made my peace with that. For instance, all of my games are on Steam, and sure, if Steam some day dies, I will be in trouble. Same goes to the hundreds of dollars I have poured on apps from the App Store. I think, at this point in my life (and by extension any advice I give to my students) will implore them to accept that DRM is part of their lives too. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 3:47
  • $\begingroup$ @jay That is up to you, however note that this is not inevitable. You are in charge of you. You do not have to change the world to change you. youtube.com/watch?v=cX8szNPgrEs $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:16

I have read E-books since 2008 (completed one today) and found them useful in:

  1. Save the Trees
  2. Easy/Quick Transportation
  3. Multiple copies enable you to comment out etc.
  4. Searching, etc. is very easy.
  5. Very helpful in finding those books who are unavailable/unheard of/banned in a given jurisdiction.
  6. A course/science may have lot of books and one can't purchase all of them (E-books are relatively inexpensive), for example, there are heaps of books on OOP and we can't designate any single one as the Only one, so it would be better to designate one as Textbook (physical form) and use others in E-books form.

Despite all this, I still feel there is no alternative to a Paper-book. I used to hear it since long time, but there are some reasons behind it:

  1. E-books can breach privacy laws and myself being from sub-continent can better understand this situation as this practice is so common in universities and not discouraged even by majority of teachers.
  2. A paper-book is a physical entity and free from all the virus/hard-disk format/failure etc. our students are so common practitioners of. I had purchased Elmasri's DB book in my BS days but to date still using it.
  3. Reading through an E-book (either online of PDF, etc.) is prone to the reader losing his/her focus through a social media's notifications, some live match, even a little search on internet for finding the meanings of a word has often ended me up having 50+ tabs open on my browser.

So my personal suggestion is to purchase Paper books for important topics (e.g. some de facto books like Elmasri, Gonzalez, Silberchatz, etc.) and use E-books for rest/unavailable in physical format or ones available freely.


Based on my experience, printed textbook is still the best learning materials. You'll gain maximum benefit for reading comprehension, recite and knowledge understanding from traditional paper based book. Because printed textbook avoid reader from many distraction! However, you'll able to use eBook for fictional books like novels, comic, etc.


(Wished to close this question by updating what I eventually decided to do)

Looking at the comments and answers above (with nothing definitive but useful suggestions), I have decided to just go with e-books. They are cheap, DRM (just make peace with it) and easy to share and discuss. Also, no need to carry your books to each class because you already have your laptop/tablet and that has all your books.

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    $\begingroup$ What...why is there a down vote? Every answer in this entire page is putting a lamp on the wall, sharing valid views but nobody is making a definitive statement. I collated everything and put them in one place and made it definitive so it could help others who are facing a dilemma like mine. You do know I stand to gain nothing by marking my own answer right? $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ Thats precisely my point. Others have pointed but each answer is, okay you can do that, but you can also do this. I was hoping that someone would say, right, you should do this, because of this. It's like, should I take the bus or the train (please tell) and every answer is like, you should take the bus and also the train. and I am still stuck with the question :P you see what I mean :) so, I decided to end the discussions, and just close it of with what I eventually decided to do. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Jay But that's called an XY problem. You already have your solution. If you ask "why is this a good solution", you'll get opinionated answers. $\endgroup$
    – ItamarG3
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't appear to be an answer. It's a reply to the existing answers. This question will not be closed, because that would make new answers impossible. The way to say that you've chosen a particular answer is by accepting it. $\endgroup$
    – thesecretmaster
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't downvote your answer, but I didn't find your answer to be definitive (at least not in the second sense of the word). merriam-webster.com/dictionary/definitive Also, I think you omitted some key points that were alluded to in the other answers, my favorite two points being the "searchability" of e-books (especially if your students use file sharing and the OCR of the scans wasn't done at all or wasn't done properly) and also the distractable nature of having your materials stored on a laptop or a tablet, since most students tablets unlike yours are loaded with distractions $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 15:53

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