This paper aims to provide educators with an introduction to ebooks, explaining their advantages and disadvantages, and exploring how to use them creatively in teaching and learning. The research was stimulated by the roll out of the Brisbane Catholic Education Digital Library, which we have recently rolled out to 138 schools in the Brisbane Archdiocese. Our web-based digital library is hosted offsite by Overdrive, managed centrally at Brisbane Catholic Education Office and delivered locally through each school’s library catalogue.
This project was initiated by a need to deliver equitable access to ebooks and audio books to all teachers and students in BCE, and to centralise the management of digital rights and complex purchasing licencing. The decision to offer this service recognises that students in the 21st century must develop an understanding of multimodal texts – that is, texts that combine two or more semiotic systems (Anstey and Bull, 2010 p.8) – in order to be literate in a digital world.
As educators, we understand that simply providing high quality resources to be used in the classroom does not ensure their effective and productive use. As Anstey and Bull note, the concept of texts that include semiotic systems other than just linguistic is very new – even as late as 1995, text was not considered to include audio, spatial, visual or gestural semiotics to convey meaning (2010). While audio books have been available for some time in the form of books on tape or cd, the use of ebooks in the Australian classroom has been more limited. Therefore this paper aims to improve teachers’ understandings of the role ebooks can play in resourcing contemporary learning and teaching.
“The thirty-year history of the ebook on the Internet began with slow and steady development and then launched into accelerated progress.” (Galbraith, 2010, p16). The first ebook was a copy of the United States Declaration of Independence, which was entered into the Project Gutenberg mainframe in 1971. Project Gutenberg is the first and largest single collection of free ebooks, and was founded by Michael Hart. It was not, however, until 1988 that a device was accessible to the general public for reading e-books. This came in the form of the NeXT Computer, a workstation computer which was developed by the NeXT company, founded by a young Steve Jobs. Over the years, ebooks were accessible via a range of Personal Digital Assistant devices (PDAs), but it wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that e-readers became commonplace. Growth accelerated in 2007, with the release of the iPhone, which featured a number of ereader apps, and the launch of the first Kindle.
Since then, technology has developed and access to improved download speeds has made the internet an effective distribution mechanism. Accordingly, the popularity of ebooks and ereaders has grown, and sales of ebooks has continued to increase, now representing almost 25% of booksales in the United States, and likely to reach 50% before June 2014 (Streitfeld, 2012).
It is possible to read ebooks using a laptop or desktop computer, a smartphone or a PDA. In some cases students may read from these devices, however for extended reading, mobile devices are a popular choice. Mobile devices for reading ebooks currently fall into two main categories – dedicated ereaders, such as Kindles, and tablets, which feature ereader apps, such as iPads and Android tablets. There are advantages and disadvantages of each, and the decision of which device to choose is the subject of countless articles and blog posts. For educational purposes, the decision is influenced by two factors: purpose and budget.
Tablets with downloaded ereader apps meet the greatest number of needs in the educational setting. They allow students to access ebooks in a variety of formats, as the different apps can read different ebook formats. They also provide students with the ability to easily connect and share their reading with others, and to create responses on the fly, as the tablet allows for shifting effortlessly between ereader app and internet access, social media connections or content creation tools. In fact, many new non-fiction ebooks for students are being designed specifically for this more robust platform (“Navigating the eReader Highway,”) This flexibility of purpose comes at a price, with tablets being generally more expensive than dedicated ereaders, and therefore budget becomes a consideration.
Dedicated ereaders such as the Kindle are less expensive, and due to differences in screen display technology, easier to read for longer periods and in bright environments such as outdoors. Tablets are backlit displays, whereas Kindles use a technology known as e-ink. E-ink uses positively and negatively charged particles which are drawn to the surface by electrical fields. The electrical fields draw black and white particles in different combinations, to display text and images (Hidalgo, n.d.). Coloured e-ink is progressively being developed, but the benefit of e-ink screens is that they are considered to be easier on the eyes, require no back light and are therefore less of a drain on power (Eriksson, Akesson, & Nordqvist, 2004). In an educational setting, dedicated ereaders are less expensive and less flexible than tablets, but might be better suited for encouraging extended leisure reading; some school libraries have investigated loaning out Kindles loaded with books with great success (Hamilton, 2011).
Just as there is variety in ways to access ebooks, there is also variety in ebook formats. Wikipedia currently lists 27 of the best known formats (“Comparison of e-book formats,” 2013). The epub is the closest ebooks have to a standard format (Hollier, 2013). The epub is an open format, which means it can be transferred onto any platform, however some epubs (notably those purchased on the Apple iBooks store) have had Digital Rights Management applied, which limits their transferability (Hollier, 2013). One of the strengths of the epub format is that the text reflows when the font size is changed. This improves readability, however makes it less suitable for rendering to tables and complex images, and removes a great deal of layout control as different devices display the layout of the ebook differently. More complex layouts require specific treatment, using a fixed layout technique within the epub format, a newly evolving design process (Cramer, 2013). The Kindle only allows for the .azw or .kf8 formats, however these are also readable on the iPad using the Kindle app. This format has strict digital rights management, which limits its use on any other device. In addition, Kindle books are limited in font selection and size. Another commonly used file format for ebooks is the PDF. PDF files are not limited to ebooks; they are commonly used for a range of purposes. The appeal of PDF for ebook is that the layout remains fixed (and therefore suitable for complex layouts including tables and illustrations) and that the format is readable on many devices. However PDFs viewed on mobile devices may vary in performance and lack interactivity and accessibility features. PDFs are difficult or impossible to reflow, so the image is generally displayed in a ‘letterbox’ format, which the user must pan or zoom around to view detail (Cramer, 2013).
The debate about the advantages and disadvantages of ebooks continues to rage. The fear of one technology replacing another can be seen in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notredame, with the Archdeacon concerned that the book (newly printed by Gutenberg) would kill the Cathedral (Price, 2012). Changing formats is almost a symbol of our times. The vinyl records of many people’s youth became the cassette, the cd, and then finally the mp3; however books have been much slower in their conversion. There are several reasons for this.
Research has yet to provide conclusive evidence that students actually prefer or comprehend more effectively reading from ebooks than from traditional printed texts (Price, 2012). Ebooks are certainly more portable than printed texts- a Kindle weighing just over 200 grams can easily store over 1000 ebooks. Indeed as Courant and Nielsen argue, the ability to provide access to countless additional titles without taking valuable library real estate is a key consideration (2010). They are also more accessible – users are no longer limited to library opening hours, and can download ebooks to their device anytime 24/7, 365 days a year. In addition, readers can take advantage of various inbuilt features, including dictionaries, customisable settings to change font size, page colour and appearance, as well as in some cases internal search capabilities, text to speech and the ability to highlight and annotate text (Larson, 2010).
Despite these advantages, ebooks are yet to completely conquer print texts. There are a number of operational reasons for this, as well as technical. The first is the additional costs involved with providing ebook access. Ebooks may be cheaper than their print counterparts, although counter intuitively some remain the same price as the printed version.
They also require a device to enable access, and in most cases an internet connection to download. Even though most students have access to computers and many to smartphones or tablets, ensuring every student has equal access can be problematic (Brunskill, 2012).
Secondly, ebooks by virtue of their nature and delivery mode are unable to be shared, digital rights management may limit titles’ availability through a library system, and some titles have simply yet to be digitized (Brunskill, 2012). Martin cites research that finds rental and loan options are being implemented for etextbooks, however many students simply prefer to retain a hard copy text for future reference, or for resale value (2012).
A feature of ebooks that plays both in their favour and counts against them is that accessing text digitally requires new literacy skills (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro & Cammack, 2004, cited in Larson 2010). Traditional print, as mentioned earlier, relies heavily on the linguistic semiotic system, and does not require users to apply audio, spatial, visual or gestural semiotics to draw meaning (Anstey and Bull, 2010). While some ebooks essentially replicate traditional print on the screen, they increasingly include multimodal elements, some which are built into the text, and others which are under the control of the reader. As the reader physically interacts with the text, traditional linear, right to left and top down processing which is required for print texts is challenged (Larson, 2010). While Larson argues that multimodal features such as video, audio, hyperlinks and interactivity with text enhance literacy development and reading comprehension (2009), others, such as Carr argue that physical book pages shield readers from the distractions of digital texts, and that reading from the screen leads to weak comprehension and shallow learning (cited in Houston, 2010).
It is clear that there remains a place for both ebooks and print texts. As with any technology used in education, the purpose should drive the choice of tool, with pedagogy and learning objectives determining how best each student should access information. As ebooks continue to evolve, the choices will change, however informed educators will see ebooks as a valuable addition to the range of teaching resources within their repertoire.
If the decision is made to make use of ebooks within teaching and learning, there are a number of avenues through which educators may access them. In most education settings, it will be the school library that manages this process. The landscape is complex and constantly changing, and there is no best practice model for either libraries or publishers (Morris and Sibert, 2010). An indepth treatment of purchasing and acquisition models is beyond the scope of this paper, however three ways ebooks may be supplied to students include via a digital library lending solution, free downloads or the adoption of etextbook solutions.
Providing access to digital reference books via cd-roms and managing subscriptions to digital information sources such as databases is nothing new for school librarians however as hardware, software and applications continue to proliferate, the decision to invest valuable school funds in an ebook lending solution is a complex one (Brisco, 2011). Recently, companies such Overdrive or Wheelers have offered school or system wide digital library solutions which aggregate different ebook providers and allow students and teachers to access ebooks either via their school library catalogue, or through a hosted gateway managed by the school. Solutions such as these provide support for schools in dealing with complex digital rights management issues, and access to a range of titles from a range of publishers via one interface, however each provider offers slightly different services, as well as access to different ranges of titles, and therefore a thorough investigation by the school or system is required before the decision is made to go with any particular provider.
Prior to making a larger scale commitment a school may prefer to investigate the range of free ebooks, or low cost subscription models. Sue Polanka identifies Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive as two excellent sources of quality free ebooks, although she qualifies this by reminding readers that they will not find New York Times latest best sellers on either of the two databases (2012). Project Gutenberg is the first free ebook provider, with over 42 000 titles in epub, kindle and pdf formats. The collection, which consists mainly of titles from the public domain, only includes books which were previously published as print texts, which have been digitized and proofed. The Internet Archive contains over 3 million digitized texts, mostly drawn from the public domain, but also some licenced under Creative Commons.
Of interest to schools may also be the International Children’s Digital Library, which includes 4642 children’s books in 61 languages. This library also provides an iPad app, and the titles are grouped by age group, and some of the titles provide narration. Being a collection of free titles, it does not feature best sellers; however it provides an access point for teachers and students to explore the potential of ebooks at no cost.
A small collection of ebooks may also be accessed via Tumblebooks, which is available to many public library users in Australia. Schools may pay a subscription to access an extended collection, which features animated books, quizzes and resources for younger readers. These books are available on a variety of devices, both at school and at home.
The use of etextbooks in higher education has been widely documented in the literature; however there is less information available about the Australian experience, particularly in K-12. A recent request for information from Australian teacher librarians through the electronic mailing list OZTLNet (Cantwell, 2013) received mixed feedback. It appears that not all students prefer etextbooks, although those that do seem to be in the younger high school year levels. The wholescale implementation of etextbooks appears problematic for a number of reasons, even in schools which are operating 1-1 laptop programs. One of the major issues cited by teachers is the licensing conditions and processes required by different publishers – staying abreast of each publisher's requirements, access codes and time frames is complex and time consuming. Another issue concerns ease of use, as access to reliable internet connectivity and the need for a powered device means that the hard copy book is sometimes just more practical for students, both at home and at school. Purchasing of etextbooks remains costly and inflexible in many cases, particularly for schools who previously operated textbook hire schemes, as etextbooks may not be passed from student to student as easily, and often a physical text book must be purchased in order to obtain the etextbook version. Some teachers mentioned the exciting possibilities they have seen in recent use of multimedia and interactive quizzes within etextbooks, however it appears that there is still some way to go before etextbooks are a practical option for replacing hard copy texts in Australian high schools.
While interactive texts on cd-rom and online have been available for some time, it is only with the combination of mobile device adoption and improvements in internet connection reliability and download speed that their use in classrooms has become a real possibility. While whole school implementation of etextbooks may still be challenging, making use of individual ebooks either through a digital library or via a free download offers potential to renew pedagogy in the area of reading instruction and to provide new and exciting ways of using texts within the classroom. In addition, simple ebook creation apps are also providing opportunities for students to create and publish and share their own titles.
The teaching of reading, while sometimes considered the concern of lower primary, should extend throughout the year levels. The use of ebooks can enhance not only reading instruction for emerging readers, but can encourage older readers and reluctant readers to engage more fully with reading both for learning and leisure. For emerging readers, Collier and Berg identify how ebooks can be used to promote all five areas of focus as identified by the National Reading Panel Report (NRP 2000), which are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension (2011 p.21). Ereaders and ereader apps feature a range of tools that enable students to take a more active role in their reading. Research has found that the engagement and attention to the text of some students is extended, when they alter the font size, use text to speech tools to decode, access the built in dictionary to aid comprehension and highlight and annotate the text, (Felvegi & Matthew, 2012).
In addition, older students who find reading challenging are able to access texts of a high interest level, and increase the font to a size where less text appears on each page, so therefore seems less overwhelming, and easier to decode. Ereaders provide a level of privacy where others cannot see what is being read, so students engaging with texts of a lower reading level than their peers may feel more comfortable reading in the presence of others (Hamilton 2011).
The Australian Curriculum: English encourages students to engage in a wide variety of texts, and moves the focus from indepth study of one title to exposure to a range of text types and language convention united by purpose (ACARA, 2012). Creative pedagogy can bring a wide range of texts to life when using ebooks in the classroom. Combining an ebook with a projector allows students to explore texts as a whole class. Picture book illustrations can be deconstructed effectively, as everyone can see all of the detail clearly. The layout of a digital novel can be examined, or a particular passage of text be explored. Combining an ebook with an interactive whiteboard allows students as a group to annotate and innovate on texts, and the illustrations, layouts or language used by different authors in different books can be quickly and easily compared and contrasted.
Students reading ebooks on tablets can pause during their reading to add comments to a blog post or to join a discussion on social media run by the teacher. They can record their voices as they read the text aloud, or take short videos of their reflections during their reading. Some ereading devices allow for annotation and highlighting of text, and therefore creating notes for novel studies and finding relevant highlighted passages is far easier than using a hard copy book which cannot be written on (Lagarde and James, 2011). Those students who are insatiable readers will be encouraged by the fact that they can access a new book on a 24/7 basis, and can access multiple titles at once (Hamilton, 2011). In addition, the provision of a digital library in addition to a physical collection means that a wider range of titles can be accommodated for than what was previously possible, which is a boon for all students, and in particular gifted students, who may have specific interest areas or a need for more advanced titles than regular students (Weber and Cavanaugh, 2006).
Publishing ebooks for sale via Amazon or iBooks can be a complex process, however there are a number of apps that allow students to easily create digital books that they can share with their friends and family. Apps such as Creative Book Builder (https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/creative-book-builder/id451041428?mt=8) and iBooks Author (https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/ibooks-author/id490152466?mt=12) enable ebooks to be created via simple drag and drop interfaces, incorporating text, images, hyperlinks, video and audio. As Thomas(2012) notes, the practice of having students create their own illustrated narrative texts is not new, however, technology now allows students to create multimodal texts and share them with a broader audience. Creating ebooks with images, audio, embedded video and hyperlinks enables students to develop the critical understandings required to interpret texts with different combinations of modes and media (Thomas 2012). The ability to publish ebooks and share them with peers encourages authenticity and gives students a real life audience for their work, which increases engagement and challenges students to reach new levels of competence (Rosenthal Tolisano, 2013).
Ebooks are just one of the many tools in a teacher’s kit. They have the potential to offer a deeper engagement with reading and to excite readers to explore new and different texts, and to interact with them in different ways. The landscape is currently in a state of flux, but it is now that teachers and libraries need to begin exploring how they can introduce this contemporary text type into learning, teaching and leisure. This is not the death of books, but the birth of a whole new area of literacy, and it is both exciting and challenging. Let ebooks electrify you!
Are Books Electric?
Are Books Electric?
Ebooks, Ereaders and Education.
Brisbane Catholic Education
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