Can we start talking about e-books for (e-)learning now?

Today’s fanfare for the imminent launch of Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader outside the US may have an impact on education. Will e-book readers finally begin to build some momentum in the mainstream market and generate, in-turn, some pressure for uptake in  education?

E-books provoke surprisingly little excitement among technophile educators.  Perhaps because the topic is associated with gadgets and gear rather than content, especially content which those same educators like authoring themselves.  In the Web toolosphere blogs and wikis monopolise the creative attention of those interested in written student expression and co-creation of text.  And digital text isn’t nearly as exciting as creating digital audio while mobile is just waayy sexier than either.

For whatever reason there hasn’t been a lot of discussion  on the topic which I have come across, aside from a dedicated  group on LinkedIn.  Maybe for good reason as there are quite a few e-book issues still up in the air.  Some of the main ones are


Firstly the device itself. Now that they can get their hands on the Kindle in the UK, more people may actually buy one (or get bought one for Christmas) which will help build awareness. E-book readers appear a good deal more popular in the US than anywhere else. In the UK Sony is on to its second round of models, the first apparently too locked down to get excited about.  Are the devices too limited if they only do black and white or don’t handle multimedia or will we be prepared to carry around both an e-book reader and the large touch screen smart phone? Or are we talking about the wrong device entirely when, as some prophesy, Apple will ride to our rescue with an iTablet?


There is a bit of work still to do on formats which are still standardising. The default format option for the Kindle, for example, apparently won’t play on a Smartphone, although there is an easy workaround for this.


This is price of the e-books rather than the device  – 20% of people in a recent UK poll said they were interested in buying a Kindle.   Many people are perplexed by the idea that the e-book should be treated as an equivalent to a full paperback – which I can lend to my friends and resell if I wish – unlike an e-book.  The publishers are quick to point out that distribution is a very small part of the overall price and fair enough but , the marginal cost of producing another copy and distributing it is nearly zero in the case of an e-book – certainly not the case with its paper equivalent.

Copyright restrictions

And then there is copyright. Looking at the way that e-music has gone, will e-books follow suit? Will they gradually come down in price with almost a micropayment model? Gospoken, for example allows readers to buy ebooks chapter by chapter – which actually works out pretty expensive. Will e-books lose their DRM protection such as the intrusive Adobe Digital editions.

These aren’t education specific issues but worth bringing them up to understand the landscape. If those aren’t solved then e-books in education will be a non issue because  education only devices won’t have traction.

What aren’t people talking about?

Educationally what are e-books for? What problem to they solve?


One answer is that they are big, bulky and expensive so an expensive device might pay for itself fairly quickly in terms of cost and space saved . That is the rationale behind California talking about adopting the Kindle’s bigger brother and “Arnold Schwarzenegger to scrap school textbooks in favour of e-books“.

The outstanding question still is ..what is an e-learning e-book?

For example – novels are 100% plain text so the e-version of a novel works fine as just black and white text.  Educational materials tend to have to illustrate concepts so the ability to display graphics – in colour – is probably essential. Hardware problem – most don’t at the moment.

Again talking about the ebook readers (unless the proposition is that students will be using netbooks) there is Steven Downe’s point that something like the Kindle will need to handle a lot more than e-books – being able to draw in web pages, documents and everything else which teachers would previously have brought into the classroom as photocopies.

Learner & learning friendly content

Many text books are intended to be a triangulation point between learner and teacher with the teacher mediating a lot of the content. Shouldn’t e-books be more accessible for self learning? Shouldn’t the content be indexed and tagged to allow far more sophisticated searching and categorisation than is possible with paper?


What about assessment? Mini quizzes before reading (listening / watching?) to whet appetites, test yourself assessments on completion to improve understanding? There is surely room for extension activities which begins to take the e-book towards a practice resource – something you could definitely see people paying for.

Animations & note taking

Learning-friendly engagement: illustrations should come alive showing processes in action, highlighting linkages, offering the ability to zoom in and out. E-books already allow for general readers to bookmark and make notes as a nice-to-have. The ability to do this and export the content into other formats will be essential for e-books.

So it’s a bit like ‘Interactive Whiteboard format’?

Educational publishers who have explored making their content Interactive Whiteboard (IWB)-friendly are probably working on the right lines except for a different audience.

It is very hard to predict what form e-books will take as it is early days and format will evolve with usage. It is easy to forget that another form of e-books have been around and very successful for several years – audio books.  I’ve been a fan of the mighty Audible for a while.  They have an evolved approach  such as full length vs. abridged versions of novels and non-fiction and semi-dramatised versions of fiction which is more akin to listening to a radio play than a book.

E versions of textbooks aren’t the same thing though they probably share issues such as having  to work out whether they are complementary or replacement and if they can be broken down into sub-components (in this case chapters of longer non-fiction works).

Interesting times …. hopefully.

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Showing 9 comments
  • Penny Martin

    This was an interesting piece. I think there just has to be a future in elearning. ebooks, ereaders…all new concepts, but it will grow. Just takes a while to catch on and it’s saving so much of our natural resources. eLearning type text will be of great importance and value.

    Penny Martin
    Freelance Writer/Editor in North Dallas Area

  • admin

    Thanks. You might be interested in this post, partly from an environmental angle from Loreen Leedy

  • Nik Peachey

    Personally, I think that the e-book reader is doomed. It’s a single purpose dedicated product in a market that is continually moving towards convergence of devices.

    The phone, computer, gaming console, personal planner, etc are all coming together in one device. Apple’s iPhone for example can do all those things and read e-books, so why would anyone by a more expensive single device that could only read e-books?

    • admin

      I take the point about there being an uncertainty around which device(s) we will be using but for me it is too simplistic to say that iPhone or other (small?) converged device will sweep all before it. I agree though that the b&w readers look very very flat. The jury is still out for me on reading a smartphone sized screen. I’ve got a Blackberry Storm and which is too small for leisurely reading of just text. Maybe I’ll get used to it with improved scrolling software and an e-paper friendly screen. What about the main point of the post though that the e-learning format for e-books hasn’t really been invented yet? If it involves whizzery like zoomable graphics, embedded video, links to external resources, interactivity etc you could say bigger screen would be better BUT we know that we can’t force people to use education specific devices so in the end I suppose the format will adapt to whatever the consumer consensus is for ‘consuming’ e-text.

  • Paula Porter

    I agree with Nik, we are being sold a bill of goods to purchase another piece of hardware that will gather dust after the newness wears off. I recently completed dissertation research with an e-textbook chapter in Adobe PDF. Though this was limited, I embedded an problem-based learning activity based on the reading in the chapter in the PDF file (used Adobe Captivate to create the learning activity, but it can also be used to create assessments and exams). Preliminary review of the data I collected shows that the group using the ebook as described scored between 5 and 11% higher in the activity when compared to a hardcopy of the text and an ebook, both using CDROMs with the activities-in color and with sound! In a survey conducted after the project, 70% of the college students (of whom 66% were women and 57% were over the age of 26), said they would prefer to have textbooks on their computers. While this research was conducted using computers, it could easily be adapted for an iPhone/Blackberry device. Both computers and mobile phones go to the classroom already, so why load students down with another device.

  • admin

    That is a really good point Paula – so college students have already got the wherewithal to read e-books. Or will do soon between netbooks and iPhone clones. The general consumer public may or may not want e-book readers but this will be a separate market from e-learning e-books. Message to publishers: get on with those e-book formats! Interesting you have some research on that as well. Even if not a very large sample, it is probably indicative.

    I’m a regular Adobe Captivate user – something I did recently is not exactly on the same page but, now I think about it, maybe is part of the same spectrum.
    You are saying (I think) an e-book is a lot of text which can benefit from some interactivity to increase engagement. The above link is for learners of English who like football and contains a lot of interactivity as a means of getting people to engage with a text. So it’s not an e-book of course but does contain a different mix of the same elements you are referring to.

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