Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less
As the technology underlying electronic readers has improved and more titles have become available, electronic books are quickly reaching the point where their advantages over the printed book are compelling to almost any observer. Already firmly established in the public sector, electronic books are gaining a foothold on campuses as well, where they serve as a cost-effective and portable alternative to heavy textbooks and supplemental reading selections. The availability of an increasing range of portable electronic reading devices, as well as the many book-reader applications designed for mobiles, has made it easy to carry a wide selection of wirelessly updated reading material. 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.
The very first electronic versions of books were those digitized by Project Gutenberg in the 1970s. Electronic books were meant to be read using a computer until the late 1990s, when devices specialized expressly for reading electronic books began to appear on the market. The latest readers offer a high-fidelity reading experience that provides most of the affordances of the printed book, with enhancements like wireless connectivity and ample storage that allow the typical device to hold more than 1,000 titles.
Electronic books have now reached mainstream adoption in the consumer sector. The Kindle was Amazon’s best-selling product for 2009, with more than 390,000 titles available, and other readers are likewise gaining in popularity. Purchasing and downloading an electronic book is a quick and simple matter; purchases can be made at any time, from virtually any location. Multifunction devices like Apple’s iPad represent a new class of tools that merge the utility of electronic book readers with web browsing, a wide variety of applications, and an expanding set of entertainment options. Devices like these make it very easy to integrate electronic books into everyday portable computing. The convenience of having an entire library of books, magazines, and newspapers — each remembering exactly where you left off the last time you looked at it — and all in a single, small device is one of the most compelling aspects driving sales of both electronic books and dedicated electronic readers.
A key question relating to electronic books is to what extent content should be separated from a particular device. Once in digital form, a book or other written material can easily be formatted for any electronic reader, but some publishing models restrict the content such that it is only accessible on a certain platform. Others are more open and allow easy transfer of content between devices. While the benefits of an open model are clear, the profit from selling an electronic reader is but a small fraction of the potential gain to be had by selling electronic books, and publishers who tie content to a particular reader can be sure of a customer base among those who own that model.
The most interesting aspect of electronic books is not the devices they are accessed with; it is not even the texts themselves. What makes electronic books a potentially transformative technology is the new kinds of reading experiences that they make possible. Publishers are beginning to explore richly visual interfaces that include audiovisual, interactive, and social elements that enhance and extend the textual content of books and magazines. The social magazine format used by Flipboard, for example, turns the browsing of RSS-enabled web content into a beautiful, serendipitous experience. Magazines like Time, Wired, and others include interactive graphs, links that extend the reader’s experience, video, and more. Epicurious for iPad is an interactive cookbook complete with reviews, tips, recommendations, and the ability to add recipes. When the electronic book ceases to be a digital reproduction of a printed piece, some writers are seeing it becoming something far richer, allowing journeys through worlds real and imagined, undertaken not alone but in company with other readers. For three compelling visions of the future promised by the electronic book, see the five-minute video The Future of the Book produced by design firm IDEO (http://vimeo.com/15142335).
Examples of this new form of electronic book are becoming more common, but they are far from the norm. Standards for the creation of electronic publications are still in development, and those that exist often focus on the text and do not include guidelines for the kinds of interactivity that is possible in electronic books. As more of its media morphs into digital forms, the publishing industry is undergoing a shift very similar to the one that took place in the music industry in the last decade. New business models and methods of distribution are appearing as older ones begin to falter. While there is no clear winner among the many available and emerging formats, the acceptance and widespread use of electronic books has enabled the industry to see a potential path through these wrenching changes.
Relevance for Teaching, Learning, and Creative Enquiry
While the typical electronic reader could conceivably hold the entire sum of textbooks and readings for the entirety of one’s academic experience, campuses have been slower to adopt electronic books than the general public for several reasons: scarcity of titles, lack of necessary features in electronic readers, a restrictive publishing model, and digital rights management (DRM) issues. Most of these constraints are vanishing. Many academic titles are now available alongside the broad selection of consumer titles; reader technology has developed to the point that graphs, illustrations, videos, and interactive elements can easily be included, and many enable bookmarking, annotation, commentary, dictionary lookup, and other research activities. Publishers have begun to uncouple print and electronic sales of textbooks, making it easier to choose one or the other as desired.
Particularly in Australia and New Zealand, DRM restrictions continue to impede the adoption of electronic textbooks. Books that are available elsewhere may not be obtainable here at all, and many of those that are available are only offered for specific electronic readers. Until electronic textbooks are divorced from reader-dependent formats, broad adoption will continue to be problematic for universities. Nonetheless, electronic books are being explored in virtually every discipline, and the advantages for students make this technology worth pursuing.
For those with smart phones, iPads, and similar devices, subscription-based services are available that allow students to receive textbooks and ancillary materials on the devices they already own. Some models offer free membership with a pay-per-book feature; others charge on a per-course basis. Business models are emerging that may lower costs for students, including textbook rentals and bulk purchases by the institution. For-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix have begun requiring faculty to assign electronic texts, and in 2010, the California State University system is piloting a similar program. While this reduces student choice, it also provides a way for the university to secure cheaper buying options for students. Course management systems (CMS) are another point of entry to electronic texts; Blackboard has partnered with McGraw-Hill and two booksellers to enable faculty to assign, and students to buy, electronic texts within the Blackboard system. CourseSmart, a consortium of five publishers, has also developed CMS integration for assigning and purchasing electronic texts.
Scholarly journals are beginning to appear in electronic form as well. The European-based Directory of Open Access Journals lists some 5,500 titles — nearly half of which are searchable online at the article level — and a typical university research library will have access to many more. Scholarly journals are not yet common in the mobile space, although electronic versions of many consumer periodicals are already available as custom apps. Pricing models for mobile periodicals vary widely; paper subscribers can sometimes receive mobile versions free, but others must pay separately per issue — sometimes at a higher rate than for a paper subscription.
Pricing and DRM issues aside, electronic books have the potential to truly transform educational practice. Currently, most electronic books and journals are merely copies of printed versions that can be read on a computer or mobile device. This simply reinforces old models of teaching as the delivery of content to passive learners. A few counter-examples are emerging that hint at the possibilities offered by electronic books — possibilities for self-directed, interactive experiences; serendipitous exploration; collaborative work; multi-modal, immersive activities; and other deeply engaging approaches to learning. Mobile applications like Inkling facilitate social interaction around electronic books that could support group study and rich teacher-student interaction at any point in the text. Electronic texts can be linked to a myriad of supporting materials that extend and enrich them. To characterize electronic books as digital versions of paper texts is to overlook the transformative power that lies in the ways they are different from printed materials. It is this, rather than faithful replication, that makes electronic books so powerful a tool for education.
A sampling of applications of electronic books across disciplines includes the following:
- Sciences, English, and Mathematics. The New Zealand-based site StudyIt provides a range of student study guides for core subjects online. Contributors can add to the resources, post questions, communicate with teachers and share information related to their subject. Part electronic book, part learning community, StudyIt exemplifies the social aspects of electronic books.
- History. Project Gutenberg Australia provides access to free, public-domain electronic books and texts, such as rich compilations of Australia’s history and early exploration. The books can be accessed by a wide variety of readers, mobile and otherwise.
- Humanities. The Humanities E-Book (HEB), offered to institutions on a subscription basis by the American Council of Learned Societies, is a digital collection of 2,200 humanities texts. Students at subscribing institutions may browse and read the collection online or order printed copies on demand.
Electronic Books in Practice
The following links provide examples of electronic books in educational settings.
The University of Adelaide maintains a repository of nearly 1,500 electronic works of literature, philosophy, science, and medicine, all free for use.
Cooliris Releases a Wikipedia Magazine Experience for iPad
The Cooliris Wikipedia application draws in content from the online encyclopaedia, transforming it into a visually rich, magazine-like display that invites browsing and exploration.
How Flipboard Was Created and Its Plans Beyond iPad
Flipboard is a ‘social magazine’ for the iPad that flows web content into magazine-style pages. This interview with its creator discusses how the idea came about and where Flipboard is headed.
Inkling Interactive Textbooks
Inkling textbooks offer a new, highly interactive textbook experience, including social networking, rich graphics, video, animation and robust annotation and sharing tools.
The Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross
This electronic storybook for the iPad and other iOS mobile devices is an interactive, immersive retelling of a classic story with animation, audio and rich graphics.
For Further Reading
The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about electronic books.
2009 Librarian eBook Survey
(Michael Newman, HighWire-Stanford University, 26 March 2010.) This comprehensive report and analysis looks at how electronic books are being used in libraries in 13 countries, including Australia and New Zealand.
Handheld E-Book Readers and Scholarship: Report and Reader Survey
(Nina Gielen, American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Humanities E-Book, 18 August 2010.) This report describes an experiment and reader survey conducted by the ACLS Humanities E-Book in 2009-10 to assess whether scholarly monographs could be used with handheld electronic readers.
Unboxed Yes, People Still Read, but Now It’s Social
(Steven Johnson, NYTimes.com, 18 June 2010.) Writer Steven Johnson argues that electronic books will transform reading into a more social experience.
Wesley College Investigates eReaders
(School Library Association of Victoria (SLAV), http://slav.globalteacher.org.au, 21 June 2010.) This post summarizes new research into how electronic readers are used in Australian schools.
What Publishers Can and Should Learn from The Elements
(Mac Slocum, O’Reilly Radar, 12 August 2010.) This article interviews Theodore Gray, author of The Elements, and discusses how the digital version pushes the envelope of electronic book publishing.