Student Ebook Reading Surges During the Pandemic

(Image credit: Felix Lichtenfeld from Pixabay.)

K-12 students are reading more ebooks than ever before.

Between March 2020 and February 2021, ebook usage at schools increased dramatically, according to a recent white paper from OverDrive Education, which works with more than 48,700 schools to distribute ebooks and other digital media through its Sora K-12 reading app.

Gains include:

  • A 139 percent increase in digital books borrowed by or assigned to students from their school’s digital collection
  • A 228 percent increase in digital books opened
  • A 25 percent increase in average hours students spent reading
  • A 21 percent increase in average hours spent reading per book.

“It’s really quite stunning,” says Angela Arnold, general manager of OverDrive Education, who believes the shift toward ebook reading will continue even as more schools and libraries resume pre-pandemic operations. “We have seen a real paradigm shift in perceptions about digital books. Prior to the pandemic digital books were nice to have and seen as accessories, or digital resources with very specific utility. Where we are today in 2021, I think digital books are more perceived as a necessity.”

Melissa Jacobs, director of the New York City Department of Education School Library System, has noticed a similar uptick in ebook reading in New York City since March 2020.

“The use of ebooks and digital content has quadrupled, if not more, across the board, because students couldn't get into physical buildings to use materials,” Jacobs says.

It took some time to get all students equitable access to digital devices but once that happened students were off and reading, she adds.

For much of 2020, many school and community libraries were closed or converted into temporary classrooms to accommodate social distancing, so checking out physical books was often difficult and sometimes impossible. This helped convert more readers and educators to the benefits of ebooks, and now that they are familiar with ebooks, they seem likely to continue reading those along with physical books.

Ebooks Going Forward

The pre-pandemic thinking around ebooks may no longer apply, says Michael Dodes, Queens library coordinator for the New York City Department of Education School Library System. “We know that pre-pandemic, most kids preferred a physical book to an ebook. I would be very interested, now that they have become such a part of classrooms, whether that's changing.”

More research is needed to answer that question but many once-reluctant educators are now embracing ebooks. “A lot of our adults have not picked up an ebook or an audiobook until now,” Dodes says. “Working your way through an ebook is just a different qualitative experience than a physical one. When you've grown up with physical books, making that shift is difficult. So having the audio books and also the professional, searchable books, where it's using an ebook for a purpose, is a good step to getting adults to make the adaptation to using ebooks.”

Jacobs does not believe students will return to pre-COVID reading habits any time soon. “There's going to be a dramatic change in the way we're going to be interacting with any type of reading material,” she says. “I think sustainability wise, e-content is here to stay, and will and has become a medium that should be offered to students.”

Ebooks, Equity, and Accessibility

Ebooks can be a more affordable option for classrooms that need multiple copies of the same book. Select ebooks can be rented, with education discounts for as little as 99 cents per student for 90 days. “That blows out of the water the economics of certain print titles,” Arnold says. “If you're talking about thousands of students who need access to books, the economics change such that digital increases access.”

Ebooks can also be paired with audiobooks. Settings such as background color and text size can be adjusted, which helps make them accessible to all readers.

“If you have a book in print, that's great, it might be accessible to some students; if you have a book in print that is in large print, you're making it accessible to a different audience,” Jacobs says. “If you have that book available in print in large print, and now in an ebook format, you now have additional accessibility tools available at the fingertips of the students.”

Having various book formats and other options available will only continue to drive literacy.

“I see e-content, audiobooks, ebooks, print, large print -- all these forms and formats -- coming together and helping enrich and provide access to our kids,” Jacobs says. “And I think all formats should be provided. Librarians and teachers shouldn't be put in a position of saying, ‘Okay, I can only choose this format.’ Because handing a kid a book in only one format is not differentiating.”

The OverDrive Ebook Report is here (registration required)

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.