What are Electronic Books?

Now that they are firmly established in the consumer sector, electronic books are beginning to demonstrate capabilities that challenge the very definition of reading. Audiovisual, interactive, and social elements enhance the informational content of books and magazines. Social tools extend the reader’s experience into the larger world, connecting readers with one another and enabling deeper, collaborative explorations of the text. The content of electronic books and the social activities they enable, rather than the device used to access them, are the keys to their popularity; nearly everyone carries some device that can function as an electronic reader, and more people are engaging with electronic books than ever before. New, highly interactive publications demonstrate that quite apart from their convenience, electronic books have the potential to transform the way we interact with reading material of all kinds, from popular titles to scholarly works. Electronic books are being explored in virtually every discipline, and the advantages for students make this technology worth pursuing.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • Digital versions of textbooks and teaching material have been accessible on screen for many years and VLE and web-based teaching environments are commonplace. Ebook readers, whether specialist (Kindle) or general-purpose (smarphone/tablet) offer interesting possibilities for enhancing engagement, giving students targetted reading lists, monitoring reading (either automatically or by asking students to annotate material) and encouraging deeper and wider reading. - bill.thompson bill.thompson May 15, 2011
  • Many organisations are already experimenting with course handouts and texts being available on hardware e-readers but we need to distinguish between electronic books and e-book readers because the usefulness of the e-book is in direct proportion to the device on which it is read. - alistair.mcnaught alistair.mcnaught May 17, 2011

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • There are major and important limitations in the way ebooks can be used because of the limited licensing, restrictive DRM software and concerns over unauthorised copying. Any model for using ebooks in higher education needs to engage with this. There are also implications because students cannot easily annotate, share, resell or make use of ebooks in ways that they make use of printed materials and any proposals must take these issues into account. - bill.thompson bill.thompson May 15, 2011
  • First off - weight. Physical textbooks are heavy - hard to carry to class, hard to take down to the coffee shop. I expect to see increased use of textbooks (especially by university students) improve greatly if they're constantly available. - zoe.rose zoe.rose May 16, 2011
  • Second - aggregation models. It's in the interest of publishers to sell textbooks as single entities, even if few (if any) lecturers require that students read the entire book. A pick-and-choose model, preferably by chapter, will let any educator select and pay for only the parts they want, and even to use chapters from different textbooks on the same topic. This is unlikely to improve publisher profits, however, as it's quite lucrative to charge for unwanted/un-needed content. I don't think it's likely to happen any time soon. - zoe.rose zoe.rose May 16, 2011
  • Finally - Annotations, especially collaborative annotations. This is currently a limitation, as you can't scribble a diagram onto the page using current readers. Annotations are a critical part of the study process - if the ebook can't support annotation, it isn't as good as paper. - zoe.rose zoe.rose May 16, 2011
  • Accessibility (in the widest sense of the word) is a major opportunity with ebooks. Technical Standards are very important since the standard supported by most publishers (ePub) has high accessibility potential and is converging with the DAISY format which is arguably the most accessible information format in the world owing to its excellent semantic navigation tools. Whilst the underlying ebook format is very good for accessibility to different users the software through which the book is rendered can lock out many of the accessibility features (for example reading an ebook on Adobe Reader gives a good range of accessibility options but reading it on Adobe Digital Editions gives a very poor experience at the time of writing). Further, the hardware can also create a layer of inaccessibility - many ebooks have zoom levels that are uselessly small for visually impaired people when the underlying digital text could be rendered at any point size desired. - alistair.mcnaught alistair.mcnaught May 17, 2011
  • Alternative licensing models - Overdrive is currently used by many public libraries to deliver DRM protected books that automatically vanish from your device after the loan period is up. The ability to digitally 'rent textbooks' on a microfinance basis could be very exciting for both learners and publishers. - alistair.mcnaught alistair.mcnaught May 17, 2011
  • Alternative Internet access - with the onboard wifi and 3G capabilities of Kindle the ebook reader could displace the laptop as the tool of choice for the digitally excluded to dip a toe in the digital ocean. For many senior citizens, getting online without having to learn Windows etc or pay for a fully fledged laptop would be a real boon. - alistair.mcnaught alistair.mcnaught May 17, 2011

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, research or information management within the next five years?

  • The impact will be enormous simply because many students will choose to read electronically as they have readers for personal use and are less likely to buy or carry printed texts. However just as schools find mobile phone technology in the classroom to be challenging, institutions are likely to find it hard to cater for the needs of reader-using students in the early years. - bill.thompson bill.thompson May 15, 2011
  • Pretty gosh darn big, for the reasons elaborated in (2) and one more - author prestige. At the moment, most textbooks are written by academics from second tier universities. The reason is, there is no prestige associated with textbooks, especially not when compared with journal papers, and textbooks take an extremely long time to write. A textbook model that was more granular (i.e. one that requires a lower time commitment, so an academic can write a single chapter) and that had proper associated metrics of distribution (prestige and impact) could result in academics from higher-tier universities doing more authoring.
  • I suspect there could also be unintended - potentially negative - consequences in terms of student knowledge and understanding. When you skim read a hardcopy book for information you absorb context in a more subliminal way than searching for a keyword on an iPod / Kindle etc. I suspect as ebooks become more ubiquitous student knowledge will become more spiky and they'll believe they know and understand more than they do. There could be identical effects at professional level. Some of the earliest adopters of e-content were on the Palm platform years ago - doctors, dentists, engineers etc who could carry immense reference tomes with them and access the information in seconds. This is generally a good idea (I'd rather my surgeon checked Gray's anatomy than did my operation from a distant memory) but you might also argue that I'd have more confidence in a surgeon who actually learned his trade rather than kept looking up in the book.... - alistair.mcnaught alistair.mcnaught May 17, 2011

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

The OU is doing good stuff with ebooks - all their course ebooks are free on itunes U.
The Right to Read Alliance, RNIB and JISC Techdis service are all working with publishers. WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) has recently publisher guidelines for publishers on making books accessible and building accessibility into workflows - sarah Hilderley at Editeur is the main contact for this (sarah@editeur.org) - alistair.mcnaught alistair.mcnaught May 17, 2011

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