When does a book become a web platform?

During last week’s CETIS conference I ran a session to assess how ebooks can function as an educational medium beyond the paper textbook.

After reminding ourselves that etextbooks are not yet as widespread as ebook novels, and that paper books generally are still most widely read, we examined what ebook features make a good educational experience.

Though many features could have been mentioned, the majority were still about the experience itself. Top of the bill: formative assessment at the end of a chapter. Either online or offline, it needs to be interactive, and there need to be a lot of items readily available. Other notable features in the area include a desire for contextualised discussion about a text. Global is good, but chats limited to other learners in a course is better. A way of asking for clarification of a teacher by highlighting text was another notable request.

Using standards to make assessment in e-textbooks scalable, engaging but robust

During last week’s EDUPUB workshop, I presented a demo of how an IMS QTI 2.1 question item could be embedded in an EPUB3 e-book in a way that is engaging, but also works across many e-book readers. Here’s the why and how.

One of the most immediately obvious differences between a regular book and an e-textbook is the inclusion of little quizzes at the end of a chapter that allow the learner to check their understanding of what they’ve just learned. Formative assessment matters in textbooks.

Embed innovation or implant potential?

This thought on etextbooks is an overflow from a conversation I was having about a workshop aimed at scoping what we would like the etextbooks of the future to look like. By defining an area of interest as “etextbooks” we were implying a continuity with textbooks, the implication seems to be that etextbooks will pick up where paper text books leave off. That, I think is different from 20 or so years ago when we were talking about how computer based learning marked a step change in how education was delivered. In that case much of the talk was about how technology will radically change education. Even if my characterisation of the two cases as opposing is a bit crude (as it is), it’s worth comparing the two approaches. I’ll do that here, just briefly.

ebooks 2013

Every year for the past dozen or so years the Department of Information Sciences at UCL have organised a meeting on ebooks. I’ve only been to one of them before, two or three years ago, when the big issues were around what publishers’ DRM requirements for ebooks meant for libraries. I came away from that musing on what the web would look like if it had been designed by publishers and librarians (imagine questions like: “when you lend out our web page, how will you know that the person looking at the screen is a member of your library?”…). So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to go to this year’s meeting. It turned out to be far more interesting than I had hoped, I latched on to three themes of particular interest to me: changing paradigms (what is an ebook?), eTextBooks and discovery.

Changing paradigms

With the earliest printed books, or incunabula, such as the Gutenberg Bible, printers sought to mimic the hand written manuscripts with which 15th cent scholars were familiar; in much the same way as publishers now seek to replicate printed books as ebooks.

With the earliest printed books, or incunabula, such as the Gutenberg Bible, printers sought to mimic the hand written manuscripts with which 15th cent scholars were familiar; in much the same way as publishers now seek to replicate printed books as ebooks.

In the first presentation of the day Lorraine Estelle, chief executive of Jisc Collections, focussed on access to electronic resources. Access not lending; resources not ebooks. She highlighted the problems of using yesterday’s language and thinking as being problematic in this context, like having a “horseless carriage” and buying it hay. [This is my chance to make the analogy between incunabula and ebooks again, see right.] The sort of discussions I recalled from the previous meeting I attended reflect this thinking, publishers wanting a digital copy of a book to be equivalent to the physical book, only lendable to one person at a time and to require replacing after a certain number of loans.

We need to treat digital content as offering new possibilities and requiring new ways of working. This might be uncomfortable for publishers (some more than others) and there was some discussion about how we cannot assume that all students will naturally see the advantages, especially if they have mostly encountered problematic content that presents little that could not be put on paper but is encumbered with DRM to the point that it is questionable as to whether they really own the book. But there is potential as well as resistance. Of course there can be more interesting, more interactive content–Will Russell of the Royal Society of Chemistry described how they have been publishing to mobile devices, with tools such as Chem Goggles that will recognise a chemical structure and display information about the chemical. More radically, there can also be new business models: Lorraine suggested Institutions could become publishers of their own teaching content, and later in the day Caren Milloy, also of Jisc Collections, and Brian Hole of Ubiquity Press pointed to the possibilities of open access scholarly publishing.

Caren’s work with the OAPEN Library is worth looking through for useful information relating to quality assurance in open monograms such as notifying readers of updates or errata. Caren also talked about the difficulties in advertising that a free online version of a resource is available when much of the dissemination and discovery ecosystem (you know, Amazon, Google…) is geared around selling stuff, difficulties that work with EDitEUR on the ONIX metadata scheme will hopefully address soon.

Brian described how Ubiquity Press can publish open access ebooks by driving down costs and being transparent about what they charge for. They work from XML source, created overseas, from which they can publish in various formats including print on demand, and explore economies of scale by working with university presses, resulting in a charge to the author (or their funders) of about £150 for a chapter assuming there is nothing to complex in that chapter.


All through the day there were mentions of eTextBooks, starting again with Lorraine who highlighted the paperless medic and how his quest to work only with digital resources is complicated by the non-articulation of the numerous systems he has to use. When she said that what he wanted was all his content (ebooks, lecture handouts, his own notes etc.) on the same platform, integrated with knowledge about when and where he had to be for lectures and when he had exams, I really started to wonder how much functionality can you put into an eContent platform before it really becomes a single-person content-oriented VLE. And when you add in the ability to share notes with the social and communication capability of most mobile devices, what then do you have?

A couple of presentations addressed eTextBooks directly, from a commercial point of view. Jenni Evans spoke about Vital Source and Andrejs Alferovs about Kortext both of which are in the business of working with institutions distributing online textbooks to students. Both seem to have a good grasp of what students want, which I think should be useful requirements to feed into eTextBook standardization efforts such as eTernity, these include:

  • ability to print
  • offline access
  • availability across multiple devices
  • reliable access under load
  • integration with VLE
  • integration with syllabus/curriculum
  • epub3 interactive content
  • long term access
  • ability for student to highlight/annotate text and share this with chosen friends
  • ability to search text and annotations


There was also a theme of resource discovery running through the day, and I have already mentioned in passing that this referenced Google and Amazon, but also social media. Nick Canty spoke about a survey of library use of social media, I thought it interesting that there seemed to be some sophisticated use of the immediacy of Twitter to direct people to more permanent content, e.g. to engagement on Facebook or the library website.

Both Richard Wallis of OCLC and Robert Faber of OUP emphasized that users tend to use Google to search and gave figures for how much of the access to library catalogue pages came direct from Google and other external systems, not from their own catalogue search interface. For example the Biblioteque Nationale de France found that 80% of access to their catalogue pages cam directly from web search engines not catalogue searches, and Robert gave similar figures for access to Oxford Journals. The immediate consequence of this is that if most people are trying to find content using external systems then you need to make sure that at least some (as much as possible, in fact) of your content is visible to them–this feeds in to arguments about how open access helps solve discoverability problems. But Richard went further, he spoke about how the metadata describing the resources needs to be in a language that Google/Bing/Yahoo understand, and that language is schema.org. He did a very good job distinguishing between the usefulness of specialist metadata schema for exchanging precise information between libraries or publishers, but when trying to pass general information to Google:

it’s no use using a language only you speak.

Richard went on to speak about the Google Knowledge graph and their “things not strings” approach facilitated by linked data. He urged libraries to stop copying text and to start linking, for example not to copy an author name from an authority file but to link to the entry in that file, in Eric Miller’s words to move from cataloguing to “catalinking”.


So was this really about ebooks? Probably not, and the point was made that over the years the name of the event has variously stressed ebooks and econtent and that over that time what is meant by “ebook” has changed. I must admit that for me there is something about the idea of a [e]book that I prefer over a “content aggregation” but if we use the term ebook, let’s use it acknowledging that the book of the future will be as different from what we have now as what we have now is from the medieval scroll.

Picture Credit
Scanned image of page of the Epistle of St Jerome in the Gutenberg bible taken from Wikipedia. No Copyright.

eTextBooks Europe

I went to a meeting for stakeholders interested in the eTernity (European textbook reusability networking and interoperability) initiative. The hope is that eTernity will be a project of the CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies with the objective of gathering requirements and proposing a framework to provide European input to ongoing work by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC36, WG6 & WG4 on eTextBooks (which is currently based around Chinese and Korean specifications). Incidentally, as part of the ISO work there is a questionnaire asking for information that will be used to help decide what that standard should include. I would encourage anyone interested to fill it in.

The stakeholders present represented many perspectives from throughout Europe: publishers, publishing industry specification bodies (e.g. IPDF who own EPUB3, and DAISY), national bodies with some sort of remit for educational technology, and elearning specification and standardisation organisations. I gave a short presentation on the OER perspective.

Many issues were raised through the course of the day, including (in no particular order)

  • Interactive and multimedia content in eTextbooks
  • Accessibility of eTextbooks
  • eTextbooks shouldn’t be monolithic and immutable chunks of content, it should be possible to link directly to specific locations or to disaggregate the content
  • The lifecycle of an eTextbook. This goes beyond initial authoring and publishing
  • Quality assurance (of content and pedagogic approach)
  • Alignment with specific curricula
  • Personalization and adaptation to individual needs and requirements
  • The ability to describe the learning pathway embodied in an eTextbook, and vary either the content used on this pathway or to provide different pathways through the same content
  • The ability to describe a range IPR and licensing arrangements of the whole and of specific components of the eTextbook
  • The ability to interact with learning systems with data flowing in both directions

If you’re thinking that sounds like a list of the educational technology issues that we have been busy with for the last decade or two, then I would agree with you. Furthermore, there is a decade or two’s worth of educational technology specs and standards that address these issues. Of course not all of those specs and standards are necessarily the right ones for now, and there are others that have more traction within digital publishing. EPUB3 was well represented in the meeting (DITA is the other publishing standard mentioned in the eTernity documentation, but no one was at the meeting to talk about that) and it doesn’t seem impossible to meet the educational requirements outlined in the meeting within the general EPUB3 framework. The question is which issues should be prioritised and how should they be addressed.

Of course a technical standard is only an enabler: it doesn’t in itself make any change to teaching and learning; change will only happen if developers create tools and authors create resources that exploit the standard. For various reasons that hasn’t happened with some of the existing specs and standards. A technical standard can facilitate change but there needs to a will or a necessity to change in the first place. One thing that made me hopeful about this was a point made by Owen White of Pearson that he did not to think of the business he is in as being centred around content creation and publishing but around education and learning and that leads away from the view of eBooks as isolated static aggregations.

For more information keep an eye on the eTernity website

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