October 15, 2012

Exploring the E-Textbook (Part 1)

This text was initially published by Vitrine technologie-éducation under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 licence, before Eductive was launched.

With the growing use of mobile devices in education and the popularity of distance learning, digitizing instructional material is becoming an imperative. Electronic textbooks, or e-textbooks, are increasingly complementing or replacing paper-based textbooks or instructor notes, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Because of the cost and technical skills involved, creating e-textbooks has long been the privilege of publishing houses. However, new resources and development tools are now putting digital publishing within the reach of educators.

In a three-part series, we will explore the e-textbook, starting in Part 1 with its main features and formats. In Part 2, which will appear next week, we will examine development tools. The series will end in two weeks with Part 3, in which we will discuss the future of e-textbooks in education.

 Defining the E-Textbook: Features and Formats

 Under the cover image of an e-textbook, the reader usually finds a table of contents, text with graphics, multimedia, and hyperlinks. The interface of the textbook generally provides features that let the reader perform basic tasks inherited from the use of paper books, mainly bookmarking, searching, highlighting, and annotating. In an educational context, an e-textbook should minimally include management functions for notes and bookmarks, as well as an internal dictionary. Finally, a key feature of today’s e-textbook is scalability: the content should not only be usable on a computer, but also on mobile devices like e-readers (devices specifically made to read digital books), smartphones, and tablet computers.

These days, the most popular formats of e-textbooks are:

  • Portable Document Format (PDF)

For many years, the PDF has been a favourite for digital documents because of its aesthetic and printer-friendly qualities. PDF files are easy to produce, and annotating and highlighting features are quickly improving, especially with mobile applications. However, because PDF files are in fact images, they do not scale easily, which is a problem if a textbook is intended to be read on various devices with different screen sizes. Also, transferring a PDF file to a mobile device can sometimes disable hyperlinks to external websites. Finally, text searches in a PDF document are limited: any text contained in graphics or mathematical formulas, which are treated as images within the file, cannot be searched; a weakness in the case of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) textbooks.

  • Online textbook

This format is very popular with textbook publishers, and in American universities. For example, Indiana University offers the online tool Courseload and well-documented support to its faculty and students as part of its eTexts initiative. Other universities provide the services of Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of free and open online textbooks. Higher education textbook publisher Pearson also proposes its own online model: eText.

Online textbooks are appealing because they provide sharing and collaborating features, as well as media-rich experiences, which are usually not available in digital replica textbooks. Some have learning analytics features that allow the teacher to follow students’ progress and to manage their learning. Another advantage of online textbooks is that they can be updated simultaneously for all users at any time; everyone always has the latest version.

However, online textbooks developed by publishers are proprietary formats. In many cases, their cost is not much lower than that of printed textbooks, and rights management can be very strict: user accounts normally expire after a limited amount of time. Therefore, the books cannot be resold or handed down when the semester is over. In addition, many students like to keep their textbooks for future use, as well as the annotations they added, which is not possible in many of the actual purchasing or renting programs. Lack of interoperability is another critical issue: data cannot be transferred from one textbook to another, and the textbook cannot be exported or imported in another format. Finally, online textbooks cannot be used offline, which is a problem for institutions that have limited Internet access in their classrooms.

  • ePub format

ePub is an international standard format for e-books developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum. Most current ePub documents and development tools are based on the standard’s second version, ePub2, approved in 2007. The third version, ePub3, was launched in October 2011 and contains features that greatly improve media integration, interactivity and accessibility, making it an ideal format not only for e-textbooks, but also for magazines and scientific journals. However, at this time, few tools facilitate the reading and creation of ePub3 files: one year is indeed a short time to integrate a new technical standard.

Being an international standard, ePub is the format supported by the largest number of e-readers, with the great exception of Amazon’s popular Kindle device, which reads its own formats: TPZ and AZW. Converting an ePub file into a format supported by the Kindle is possible with a proper tool (like Calibre, a free, open source application) but not if the file is protected by a digital rights management (DRM) technology. DRM technologies “lock” digital material; they are employed by many content providers like Adobe, Apple, Amazon, Sony, etc. to prevent certain uses of their products, and removing them is generally illegal. Apple also has its own format (ibooks), which is derived from ePub, but cannot be read on a non-Apple device.

A few applications allow reading an ePub2 file on a desktop computer or a laptop. The most popular are Adobe Digital Editions (for files protected by Adobe’s digital rights management technology) and Calibre (for unprotected files). Plugins can also allow reading ePub2 files on Web browsers. Most tablets and smartphones are equipped with an ePub reading application; however, users of Apple mobile devices must install the iBooks application (which cannot be used on Mac computers), or another e-reader app such as Bluefire Reader or Stanza.

If an e-textbook is expected to be scalable, interactive, and accessible without an Internet connection, publishing it as an ePub file makes sense. The format is recognized internationally as a standard and can be read on almost all devices. It is also technically simple enough to make creation and conversion relatively easy. And while a textbook in ePub2 may not be as interactive or aesthetic as an online publication, it can be used offline, which is an important advantage. Next week, the second article of this series will present ePub2 development tools and other resources to create your own e-textbook.

More resources

Sincere thanks to Réjean Payette, Marc-Antoine Parent, and Pierre-Julien Guay, whose expertise and materials, featured in VTÉ’s activity “Labo VTÉ : S’approprier le manuel numérique” served as references for this article.


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