8th December 2023 11:36 am
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Unisa students: Consider buying digital versions of textbooks

As a recent University of South Africa (Unisa) graduate I’m continually surprised by the fact that most other students I talk to believe that the only option for textbooks is paper.

Unfortunately those who don’t know about the digital option – or won’t give it a chance over paper – are missing out on a lot.

One big advantage of digital is the instantaneous search. Need to look up a very specific term or word in your textbook? Simply use the search function. This makes hunting down answers for assignments and studying for exams so much easier. Even if you’re a wiz when it comes to using the index and glossary to get around a physical textbook, there’s no way you can go faster that an automated search.

Another boon here is the ability to copy and paste text right out of your textbook without the need to re-rewrite. This make summaries for your exam notes once go by in a fly. You can then spend more time studying and less time mindlessly rewriting the words of the author. If you find rewriting helps you to study, you can still do that off of your own notes made with copy and paste.

Those two advantages over paper will save you countless hours over the course of a semester, and even more if you use digital books all through your degree, and there’s the other inherent bonuses for anything digital compared to physical media.

Your digital book can’t be stolen, lost or destroyed. With most textbooks costing hundreds and sometimes thousands of Rands, this is a godsend. If you travel (when / where allowed under lockdown) you won’t be weighed down by thousands of pages of paper, and you can access your books from multiple devices.

I recognise that there’s a lot of study that goes into the world of how students learn and how the books – physical or digital – can impact this, but I beg you to give a digital book a chance, even if it’s just for one module. I spent half of my degree with solely physical books and when I made the change I kicked myself for wasting so much time flipping pages instead of actually learning.

One of Unisa’s official booksellers is Van Schaik, which has a website you can visit here. While Van Schaik also sells regular paper versions of your textbooks, they also offer digital editions for certain titles.

Simply input the name or ISBN number into the search bar and you may see that two similar books appear in the search. If you look at the thumbnail of the book cover you will see a small “eBook” orange logo above it, and this is made clearer in the product page:

Search page – 


Product page – 


And now we get to the downsides. As you can see digital books cost around the same as physical ones. This would be okay if not for the fact that you can’t re-sell your digital book once you’ve passed the module it’s attached to.

There’s no way around it: legal, digital textbooks will likely be more expensive overall compared to physical ones.

There’s other problems too. Many of the books I needed for my degree had to go through Van Schaik and the associated VitalSource ebook software. When you buy one of these books you don’t just get a PDF emailed to you, you need to always access the books through VitalSource’s app. This app on both PC and mobile is atrocious. It’s slow, difficult to use and obtrusive. It’s one of the worst pieces of software I’ve ever used.

It’s a testament to how good digital books are that, despite this problem, ebooks are still superior to physical books and I still got work done faster.

Your books may be available digitally from other vendors which use different software, so keep that in mind.

Studying is a very personal endeavour. Whatever works best for you stick to it, but do consider at least trying digital despite these problems.

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