Understanding E-Textbooks – it’s not Elementary!

Many  schools are currently wrestling with the concept of e-textbooks. The traditional textbook provided a simple interface to support student learning; the e-textbook creates numerous complexities. However, like everything in education, we are challenged to provide whatever offers students the best learning experience.

The ability to publish books in a digital format is still so new; although we have had access to pdf versions of textbooks and texbook information available via a cd-rom for some time, the iPad, through which so many of us access e-publications was launched on the 3 April, 2010 – just 3 years ago! The Kindle became available in Australia just one year before that – on October 19, 2009.

It is easy to forget this fact, and also to overlook the fact that the physical textbook itself has gone through many iterations to become what it is today. One of the earliest textbooks is Ars minor (The Smaller Art [of Grammar]). It was written in the 4th century by Aelius Donatus, who was the teacher of Jerome who translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. Donatus’s Ars minor was one of the first items to be printed in Europe, on Gutenberg’s printing press.  By the time education was made compulsory in the 19th century, the textbook had established its place in the classroom; it sold approximately 2 million copies in 18th century America.

So a tool that has been central to teaching and learning for over 300 years is now being challenged by a new delivery method – is it any wonder that for those of us teaching during this time of transition, we are finding that it is not all smooth sailing!

The University of Queensland Library defines etextbooks as follows:

E-textbooks are a subset of the ebook format. E-textbooks are written for students, published for use by educational institutions. They cover core course content. This contrasts with ebooks bought by the library that support research, or to supplement the learning experience. E-textbooks generally come with features not available to print equivalents: assessments, such as quizzes; lecture slides; social media channels, facilitating student interaction. Until recently, e-textbooks have been digital equivalents of printed books…there is an increasing trend for e-textbooks to be born digital, and to not be released in print. (University of Queensland Library, 2012)

Unlike physical textbooks, digital textbooks can take different forms:

  • Hybrid textbooks – print textbooks with a cd rom insert with digital support material
  • Digital textbooks – replicas of print textbooks in different file formats
  • Enhanced digital textbooks – delivered online or in ebook format, these textbooks feature interactive elements such as quizzes, video clips or social media capabilities
  • Proprietary publisher solutions – online teaching and learning environments which contain textbook information as part of the offering (Hallam, G. 2012)

Some challenges may derive from the fact that the potentials of digital delivery of learning materials go far beyond the traditional textbook format, however currently some publishers are trying to replicate the textbook model, using digital tools.

The advantages of e-textbooks seem logical:

  • 24/7 and remote access
  • enhanced mobility and reduction in physical size
  • inbuilt features such as search, dictionary
  • enhancement of learning experience via inbuilt multimedia and interactivity
  • improved accessibility for students with sight impairment

However,  teachers and teacher librarians report challenges including

  • the need for digital  infrastructure including strong WiFi networks
  • the cost of providing/maintaining devices required to deliver digital content
  • the time-consuming nature and complexity of management
  • the inability to provide textbook hire or resale of texts

At present, there are many models of digital rights management, and each publisher retains the right to determine how users may access the content, and for how long. Textbooks may be licenced to individual students via registration keys which may expire after 12, 18 or 24 months, and the ability to transfer ownership should a student no longer require a text varies in complexity, and is in some cases not possible. Schools which previously operated a book hire scheme cannot offer this cost-saving measure when using digital textbooks. Students themselves often find that they find the traditional paper textbook easier to manage, depending upon the subject material.

It is not surprising that these challenges exist, given how recently digital textbooks have become available. As technology improves, and as publishers establish more effective models of distribution, these issues will reduce. In fact, one product which seems to address some of these challenges is LearningField, which is  a new initiative from the Copyright Agency. From the Learning Field website:

The website and application provide an industry solution for the distribution of digital textbooks to secondary school students. LearningField provides a resource-rich digital platform which allows teachers to select the best material to support the differing needs of Years 7–10 students across all subject areas. Initially content is provided by publishers Cambridge University Press, Jacaranda, Oxford University Press and Pearson.

While paper textbooks will probably exist for quite some time yet, initiatives such as this show that there is scope to move beyond traditional models of content delivery, and to embrace the potential that digital technology provides. The next few years will most probably be a bumpy journey, and currently e-textbooks are anything but elementary; but one good thing about the rate of technological change is that we certainly will not be waiting for too long!

For a summary of this post and for further resources, check out this interactive image: http://www.thinglink.com/scene/447617168394158080


Hallam, G. C. (2012). Briefing paper on eTextbooks and third party eLearning products and their implications for Australian university libraries. Retrieved from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/55244/

The New England Primer. (2013, October 11). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_New_England_Primer&oldid=576716878

University of Queensland Library (2012a). E-Textbook FAQs. Retrieved October 18, 2013 from http://www.library.uq.edu.au/about-us/e-textbook-faqs