E-textbooks for the classroom: The Future of Education?

Is now the right time to invest in eBook devices?

(originally published June 17, 2011)

Technology in the classroom is evolving.  The purpose of this communication is to let you know where things stand right now.

It is important to distinguish between trade books that may be used in the classroom, and textbooks.  Trade books are the novels, plays, biographies, etc., usually in paperback format that are sometimes used for supplemental reading in the classroom.  These are readily available for download onto a Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader device. Readability is very good; you can adjust the size of the print and the words scroll to fit the screen of the device. Generally, to download these books, a credit card is necessary and it is downloadable to a specific device and ownership is non-transferable. There is minimal or no price advantage over the paperback version usually used in the classroom.

Publishers have treated textbooks differently.  Other than a possible PDF format on to a PC, it is not downloadable in the same way as a trade book.  The PDF, when available, is static in presentation and does not offer workable links.

The textbook publishers have used ‘login and password’ onto their website as the preferred method for delivering an e-textbook.  The online version (e-textbook) is generally available for purchase by itself or in conjunction with the purchase of the hard copy.  Generally, purchasing the online version alone is approximately 25% of the hardcover price for a one-year license.  A six-year license for the e-version login is usually equal to the price of the hardcover.   The later editions of online textbooks offer links to source materials and additional information as well as offering instant result quizzes to assist instructors in identifying student weaknesses.

Considerations for assessing whether online editions (e-textbooks) are a viable alternative for your student population include:

  • Does your student body have access to high speed Internet at home for accessing the textbook at home?
  • Does the school have sufficient wireless Internet structure for multiple student use through out the day?

There has been a lot in the news lately about publishers introducing textbooks compatible with Apples’ iPad.  Though I have heard about beta tests being performed around the nation, the only major publisher to introduce anything viable so far is Houghton Mifflin. Houghton Mifflin, after beta testing for the past year, has introduced an “Algebra 1” app that appears worthy of consideration.

Before rushing out to buy iPads, schools should be wary of the fast evolving pace of the electronics industry and the pursuit of a standard.  The reason publishers have been slow to introduce materials for the iPad is that the iPad is not compatible with Flash.  Flash is a product of Adobe Systems that is used to add interactivity to web pages.  As discussed, textbook publishers have been making e-books available only by logging into their website, which were typically created using Flash.  Publishers will have to invest time and money to convert to programs compatible with the iPad.  Publishers have also expressed some concerns with the proprietary nature of Apple products.

The iPad is a tablet computer, or a “tablet PC.”  Though Apple has grabbed market share with their early introduction of a well priced tablet, the iPad, there are other well established computer manufacturers introducing their version of the tablet.  Included in this group are Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, and Blackberry (Research in Motion) and they are all compatible with Flash.

It appears that the publishers are hedging their bets.  While putting some resources into making books iPad compatible, they are waiting to see which eBook reader will gain the most market share.  Once that battle has been decided, publishers must then calculate whether the technology is affordable on a schools budget.