Super-Smooth Guide to Integrating Digital Learning (Part One: Understanding the Digital Books Landscape)

Digital books are an exciting technology within a rapidly growing field, but they can still present schools with problems when first being integrated into the curriculum.

In our experience, the right planning will minimize or eliminate these hurdles, and it’s important to plan for the limitations of the technology as well as potential hangups in your particular school community.

This series of posts, leading up to Digital Learning Day 2015, will discuss best practices for integrating new digital learning tools into the classroom, starting with this post as an examination of the current state of digital books, then, subsequently, with an outline of steps to prepare your school for the transition to digital.

First, let’s look at eBooks and digital learning products as they currently function and see where they can catch schools by surprise when adopted en masse.

The Main Categories

The many different types of digital products can best be categorized in two ways: browser-based books and downloadable books. Access method is a huge practical consideration that should be balanced with the features a title provides.

  1. Browser-Based or Publisher-Hosted Digital Books These products have made the largest departures from the static text and image definition of a book, and are more comparable to a website or software application. They often contain not only dynamic media such as videos and animations, but also interactive features like evaluations and teacher-level metrics. Relative to the second category, downloadable books, this additional functionality comes at the cost of portability–viewing browser-based books requires internet access due to the amount and type of data they contain. Also to be considered is the setup, distribution, and management of individual access codes within each class.
  2. Downloadable EBooks Downloadable eBooks allow for offline viewing and are reliable on mobile devices. They are also more readily available after purchase, as they require no class setup. Different downloadable formats have different advantages:
  • PDF – an eBook in PDF format is essentially a series of images replicating the print book’s pages into digital graphics. This ensures uniform formatting and graphic rendering, but limits user customization and optimization of the content to the device.
  • EPUB – this is the most prevalent and compatible format. It is a free and open file format developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum. EPUB content is reflowable, meaning it will optimize to the device’s display area depending on the chosen text size. It is primarily useful for text but can contain graphics. EPUB files can be transferred with some effort.
  • Kindle and iBook – proprietary versions of EPUB, these have the same functionality of EPUB but are designed to only be opened with Amazon’s or Apple’s proprietary applications, respectively.

Despite expectations, most eBooks require a number of steps to install and access, and the interim steps for schools can be especially time-consuming. EBooks are great educational resources, and can offer convenience and cost savings (potential benefits we’ll examine in an upcoming post), but it’s important to remember their limitations. In particular, access and controls do vary between publishers and even between imprints of one publisher, so each title should be verified for compatibility before purchase and set up in enough time for classes.

We hope you’ll stay tuned for the next post, which will be about how to get the most out of adopting a new eBook by prioritizing the features or objectives the eBook should meet.

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