October 29, 2012

Exploring the E-Textbook (Part 3)

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

After presenting e-textbook formats, features, and development strategies, we end this series with a reflection on the future of e-textbooks in education.

The Future of E-Textbooks

There is great potential for e-textbooks in education, as they allow for mobility, interactivity, variety in content delivery methods (text, audio, video, animation…) and eventually, customization for personalized learning. Also, their capabilities can be combined with those of an interactive whiteboard for use in the classroom. So why haven’t e-textbooks replaced paper-based textbooks yet?

As for other technologies, technical and financial challenges restrain the implementation of e-textbooks in education. Tablets and e-readers, often more suitable for reading and manipulating digital works than desktop computers or laptops, are still expensive. And while many expected the cost of digital textbooks to be much lower than printed textbooks, it seems the difference is minimal in certain cases.

A possible solution to this issue lies in open educational resources (OER). For example, in Canada, the province of British-Columbia will offer open e-textbooks to its first and second-year university students starting in 2013. In United States, California State University launched an Affordable Learning Solutions Campaign to enable faculty to provide quality educational content that is more affordable for their students, including open e-textbooks. Teachers and students have also been collaborating on homemade free resources, like the Cachalot project at Duke University or the book Cultivating Change in the Academy from the University of Minnesota. Since the use of e-textbooks is one of the main reasons given by schools to implement tablet or e-reader projects, offering free and open textbooks certainly adds value to the purchase of reading devices.

Yet, it seems that tablets or free resources are not enough to raise students’ interest for digital works. Indeed, e-textbooks will need to be more than digital copies of printed textbooks to win their favour: according to a report by the Book Industry Study Group, in 2011, 75% of students still preferred printed textbooks over digital replicas. Among reasons explaining this lack of enthusiasm, like cost and availability issues, students mention that they “expect more” from an e-textbook: interactivity, connectivity, sharing features… Based on these findings, it seems enhancing the learning experience with innovative design choices would contribute to more e-textbook adoption. This means taking advantage of new formats and development tools instead of simply producing replicas of printed books or instructor notes. Soon, e-book specific formats like ePub3 will allow for increased interaction, sharing, and accessibility, online and offline. It will be a few more years before standardization and usability issues are resolved, but educators who start experimenting now with structuring and publishing digital documents will already be on board when the train picks up speed.

In conclusion, the e-textbook trend is very much alive, even if it is not subjected to extensive media coverage these days. Schools around the world are experimenting with e-textbooks, including in South Korea, where a national program was implemented in 2008 to digitize all instructional material by 2015. If the program is successful, how soon will other countries adopt the idea? Meanwhile, as academic institutions become more digitized, and as textbook publishers develop new models of instructional material, teachers will be called on to use or contribute to e-textbooks that meet students’ need for interaction and collaboration. Therefore, keeping an eye out for development tools and strategies is a must, and experimenting with them is certainly recommended.

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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