Jisc Observatory report on Ebooks in Education

The joint CETIS and UKOLN Observatory has just published a report “Preparing for Effective Adoption and Use of Ebooks in Education” written by James Clay. My CETIS colleague Li and I wrote the foreword for this report, which I’ve reproduced here but really you would be better going to the observatory and downloading the whole report.

Ebooks have been around for many years: their history can be traced back to initiatives such as Project Gutenberg in the 1970s or formats such as PDF released in the mid 1990s. Handheld ebook reader hardware has been available from the late 1990s. For much of that time, ebooks arguably had little impact outside a few areas of niche interest.

In the last few years, however, there has been an increasing stream of stories about ebooks outselling printed books by some measure or another. For example, in August 2012 it was widely reported that Amazon in the UK had sold more ebooks than hard- and paperbacks combined[1]. Although there is of course often an element of advertising hype in many of these stories, they do reflect a real shift in the popularity of ebooks.

Various visions of ebooks
This shift has largely been prompted by two developments in ebook readers: the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad, with associated apps. In technical capabilities neither is unique. Arguably, they are not even innovative as they both do no more than bring together pre-existing technologies. Nevertheless they do represent major initiatives that demonstrate their technical potential. Interestingly, they also represent somewhat opposing visions of what an ebook is.

The Amazon Kindle is by far the most successful representative of a range of devices that adopt the approach of trying to deliver the same content as a book, in as convenient a manner as possible while maintaining the ease of reading. The emphasis is on cheap, lightweight e-readers that allow owners to carry all they could desire to read without too much thought or effort. The minimal size and weight allow the Kindle to be no more of a burden to carry than a small paperback. The screen is designed so that the reading experience is similar to that of paper, rather than that of a computer screen. The memory capacity and network connectivity are designed so that owners need never run out of material to read and need never worry about syncing content with their computers. The battery life typically extends to days of use, so owners need rarely be worried about charging the device. The emphasis is on the text, so that design elements such as font, colour, and layout may be lost. This represents one of the potential drawbacks of the Kindle approach in education since the layout of many textbooks is carefully designed to enhance the explanation being presented through choice of colour, boxed explanations of concepts as asides, or (especially in technical subjects) complex tables and equations. It is important to recognise that many of the news stories concerning the explosion of ebooks relate to the Amazon Kindle and to linear texts (such as novels) read for pleasure, rather than complex material designed for study.

Not surprisingly ( given Apple’s history of an emphasis on good-looking, well-designed products and a target market of customers who appreciate such things), Apple’s ebooks designed for the iPad (iBooks) place greater value on the appearance of the printed page. Apple’s iBooks can support full-colour, high-fidelity representations of a printed original. The iPad is capable of displaying the original look of historical manuscripts such as mediaeval bestiaries or the original handwritten and illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland (and other rare books held by the British Library). While maintaining some of the convenience of the Kindle approach, Apple’s approach requires greater computing power, at a cost of increased weight and price — and decreased battery life. With this greater computing power also comes the opportunity toChallenges of ebooks in academic contexts go beyond what can be displayed on the printed page. An image on a printed page has to be static, whereas hardware such as the iPad allows moving images and interactive 3D models to be displayed, offering a potentially rich educational experience.

Challenges of ebooks in academic contexts
One of the challenges facing Higher and Further Education is how to respond to these possibilities. Does interactive content that can be brought into the classroom by students change the role of the course textbook? Does the facility of even the modest Kindle for sharing comments and annotations among readers allow new ways of discussing a text? Are there deep-seated human factors surrounding the way that students study, which cannot be satisfactorily replicated by ebooks and could even impede learning when using them? For example, such factors include: making notes, annotations and bookmarks; jumping around a textbook rather than reading it sequentially cover-to-cover; having several books open at one time; or just the plain familiarity of the paper-based format as compared to software navigation that has to be learnt. It does seem clear from studies so far that students in general will not welcome ebooks unless there is some clear advantage to be gained by their use[2].

There are other challenges. The change in publishing brought about by ebooks represents a challenge to publishers. It is noticeable that none of the developments in ebooks (from Project Gutenberg through to the Kindle and the iPad) have come from publishers. They are challenged by the change in publishing that ebooks represent. Typically, publishers are challenged by the difficulty of producing content for novel and varied platforms. Such interoperability issues are accentuated by the desire of some to push the interactive capabilities of ebooks as far possible (and these capabilities are important to education). Publishers are also challenged by the way that digital content changes the way in which material can be distributed and copied. This is a problem that they pass on to libraries: in essence an ebook may be “lent” out by a library numerous times without degradation or loss of availability to others, whereas a paper book can only be lent out to one person at a time and will eventually fall apart. As a result, in order to protect their income, publishers seek to limit what libraries can do with books by limiting the rights that libraries buy when they purchase a book, and by enforcing those rights through Digital Rights Management technology. Alternatively, publishers will need to redefine what libraries purchase, moving from a transfer of ownership of a copy to something more akin to rental or subscription to a service. These changes impinge on libraries’ scope for action in Higher Education.

As with any other technology in education, there are still many barriers and challenges that exist and these need to be overcome for ebooks to be adopted more widely in Higher and Further Education. This report introduces some key concepts related to ebooks in general and discusses the technical, cultural and legal challenges that need to be addressed for the successful adoption of ebooks in education. Furthermore, it also offers scenarios showing effective use of ebooks in libraries and in teaching and learning across institutions. It provides us with useful insights into the future directions of ebooks development.

1. See, for example, this August 2012 report in The Guardian of Amazon’s announcement that “for every 100 hardback and paperback books it sells on its UK site, 114 ebooks are downloaded”.

2. For commentary on recent research into university student attitudes toward and usage of etextbooks, see this August 2012 article: “Students Find E-Textbooks ‘Clumsy’ and Don’t Use Their Interactive Features” The Chronicle of Higher Education, online . For more in-depth summary of this research, see also:Internet2 eTextbook Spring 2012 Pilot Final Project Report (1 August 2012).

Phil Barker & Li Yuan, JISC CETIS, September 2012