Can Digital Textbooks Replace College Instructors?

An edtech founder provides some answers.  

GUEST COLUMN | by Dave Sherwood


Reading is the most basic unit of learning. Over time, and especially in the past decade, how learners read has metamorphosed due to the varying formats, shifting reader preferences, and a host of other factors. The pandemic accelerated the rise of the eBook industry in the U.S., which grew by 175% from 2020-2022, and now makes up 9% of the total publishing industry.

‘Over time, and especially in the past decade, how learners read has metamorphosed due to the varying formats, shifting reader preferences, and a host of other factors.’

After all, eBooks seem to offer much more than print books. A 2023 study conducted among students in Oman reported that more than three-quarters of the respondents said they like eBooks for their convenience, as they are easier to carry. Another survey among college students in the U.S. reported that 94% want to use their cellphones in class for academic purposes. And in this era where almost every prospective college student has a device in their hands–nearly 9 in 10 teenagers own a smartphone–it’s conceivable to imagine a world where eBooks are the rule rather than the exception.

So, if reading is the bedrock of learning, and the world is going digital, can digital textbooks replace professors?


Instructors Remain Vital

Even with the rapid advent of digital textbooks, instructors remain vital in student learning and success in higher education for several reasons:

  • Personalization and Adaptability: Learners are, first and foremost, humans. While digital courseware can provide personalized learning experiences, instructors offer a level of personalization that algorithms cannot. Instructors pick up on students’ verbal and non-verbal cues to understand each student’s unique learning style.  They can provide emotional support and offer humanized feedback and guidance that digital tools cannot. Evidence from state community colleges suggests that students who participate in targeted and intensive support programs run by human advisors experience improved outcomes.
  • Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving: Effective teaching involves encouraging critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Instructors can engage students in discussions, debates, and hands-on activities that promote higher-order thinking. While digital textbooks may provide information, instructors help students process and analyze information, and apply it to real-world observations.
  • Skill Development: Beyond academic knowledge, instructors help students develop essential life skills such as communication, teamwork, time management, and ethical decision-making. They create a supportive classroom environment, encourage collaboration, and help students develop critical interpersonal skills. These skills are crucial for success in the real world. 


Improving Pedagogy and Student Outcomes

Digital textbooks do not have to be, and can never be, a complete replacement for instructors. But they can be valuable and powerful in enabling instructors to improve their pedagogy and student outcomes.

  • Drive student engagement. A digital textbook platform should give instructors access to student usage data. Instructors can use these data to drive student engagement and assess student preparedness, paving the way for richer in-class discussions. Instructors can also use these data to flag at-risk students, which is important when developing advising programs.
  • Immediate access to digital textbooks. A digital textbook program should give students access to their textbooks from day one. A  2018 study concluded that “by simply ensuring that all students, regardless of need or background, have access to course materials on the first day of class, the quality and extent of learning appear to be improved.” 
  • Lower cost of attendance. 2021 survey of American adults who never enrolled in college revealed that their primary reason for never pursuing a degree was cost, which includes tuition and course materials. Digital textbooks are inherently less expensive than print books, so the cost of attendance in programs that adopt digital textbooks is lower and therefore more accessible to a wider body of students.


While reading is the bedrock of learning, instructors are its lifeblood. Institutions will do well by taking full advantage of digital textbooks to empower their instructors.

Dave Sherwood is CEO and Co-founder of BibliU, a learning enablement platform that empowers universities to automate workflows and improve student outcomes with first-day access to eTextbooks from over 2,000 publishers. He is also the Co-founder and Chairman of Teach Learn Grow Inc, serves as a board advisor at Purlos, and founding member of the Edtech Founders Club. Dave earned his Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Western Australia before coming to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, during which time he co-founded BibliU.

  • Maggie


    I really loved reading this post and seeing the different viewpoints. I personally believe that teachers can’t and shouldn’t be replaced by technology. There is so much to learn just with being in a classroom full of peers and teachers because its important for us to have those connections. I would agree with only using online textbooks however because the real ones are expensive!

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