The 5 EdTech trends of ELT part 4: e-textbooks

ipadHear that distant rumbling sound? That’s the sound of every ELT publisher rushing to create ebook versions of their coursebooks because we’re moving into the age of the paperless classroom. As one of my American colleagues so wonderfully puts it, “The toothpaste is out of the tube” – there’s no going back now. There’s a range of e-textbook types, many of which are too print-faithful to be really useful. We need to take things further, and this post ends with some of the key questions that we need to look at if we’re going to use the paperless classroom as an opportunity to improve what a coursebook is, rather than just re-create what we’ve already had for 30 years.

This is the fourth in a series covering 5 key trends in EdTech, as identified by Edudemic a few weeks ago, but looked at from an ELT point of view:

1. Online learning
2. Alternative credentialing platforms
3. Smartphones and tablets
4. e-textbooks
5. Learning management systems

e-textbooks have, in only the last year, become a bigger deal than online learning – at least in terms of mindshare. That’s partly because online learning is now taken for granted and partly normalised, as I suggested in the online learning post in this series, but also because demand for tablet versions of coursebooks has exploded. It’s only three years since Steve Jobs sat in a leather armchair on stage showing off the just-announced iPad. Has a piece of consumer technology ever had such a big impact in such a short amount of time before? Probably not. In education, definitely not. The arrival of the tablet has led to the existence of e-textbooks. Well, they kind of existed before, but no-one used them and they were pretty pointless. Class sets of laptops were never going to replace printed textbooks. Class sets of iPads already are.

The form factor of a tablet means it’s pretty obvious to think of it as a possible replacement for a book. Add all-day battery life and ease of use, and you’ve got a winning combo. We’re starting to see whole education systems mandating paperless classrooms and bulk-purchasing iPads or Android tablets. In the US, so-called one-to-one programs are one of the hot topics. This is partly driven by the (pipe) dream of saving money by moving away from print, and partly by faith in the promise that tech can transform an education system that’s seen to be failing.

Replicas of print books

At the most basic level, you can simply replicate the printed page on a tablet screen. PDFs or even ePub files. With ePub, you also have the option to embed audio and add hyperlinks. So you add a basic level of convenience by allowing students to listen to the audio related to an exercise by tapping a button right on the page. And they can use links to navigate around the content. I’ve spoken to teachers and students who seemed quite happy to use PDFs on iPads. I was surprised they weren’t more disappointed at how basic and poor the experience of using a PDF of a textbook is. However, at that time, the iPads were still quite a new addition to the classroom, and expectations are getting higher now.

e-textbooks of this type aren’t really adding any value though, are they? OK, you can load lots of books onto one tablet which makes the school bag much lighter. And you can easily switch from your textbook to look things up online, do project work in Keynote, record audio or video, watch videos on YouTube etc – but all of those good things are just inherent in the tablet itself. The actual textbook is less usable than its print equivalent. It’s harder to annotate or write in the answers, you can’t easily flick back and forth between pages, or skim through the book.

Finally, most textbook pages are quite a lot larger than a 10″ tablet screen. If the book is reasonably dense on the page, that means constantly zooming in on the content you want to focus on. Not good.

In ELT, publishers are still getting their act together, and even these print replica books aren’t yet standard issue. But for big coursebooks, it’s already too late to do something this basic unless it’s as a stopgap while putting together something a bit richer and more usable. Basic e-textbooks will probably live on for a while though, at the bottom end of the food chain – i.e. for books which don’t sell in big enough quantities to justify spending much money on. The biggest advantage of basic print replica ebooks from a publisher’s point of view is that they’re relatively cheap to produce. However, if you don’t work in publishing, then I expect you think they’re cheaper to create than they really are. The production costs aren’t too bad – but re-clearing permissions for artwork and photos can be an expensive nightmare, no matter how basic the ebook.

Interactive ebooks

An Inkling e-textbook for Spanish
An Inkling e-textbook for Spanish

Taking things a step further, we’re starting to see a lot of e-textbooks appearing which contain interactive versions of the activities. You know the score – drag and drop gap-fills, the ability to type answers into gaps, multiple-choice. If you add auto-marking and the ability for students to save their work, then we’re finally starting to move beyond what printed textbooks can do. That’s assuming teachers are happy for their students to be able to see the answers whenever they like, do the exercises before they’ve told to, play the audio whenever they like etc. Sounds like a potential classroom management nightmare to me.

These are generally created as apps, although ePub3 now means you can create something reasonably interactive as a real ebook. Apps are great and massively more capable that any ebook format, but you can only distribute them through the App Store, whereas ebook formats can be bought in a variety of places. Beyond that, take a look at the like of Inkling and Kno – e-textbook platforms with all sorts of good features, which certainly go way beyond slavishly copying print.

Classroom management tools

Have a look at Nearpod if you haven’t already, and you’ll see where things are going in terms of ebooks helping make the management of your lessons easier. Again, this is where they can take things beyond what print can do. Teachers able to send content to students’ tablets, check on what each student is doing, share a student’s screen with the class. This is just the start, and I think we’ll see big developments here over the next couple of years.

What’s happening in ELT?

When it comes to big coursebooks available for iPad (or Android), it’s still very early days. Some are available, and many others are in development. Most are apps; others are in various ebook formats. Some are straight print replicas; others are more interactive, although designed to look just like a paper book, complete with cheesy page turn animations. So, not much to see right now, but we’re going to see an avalanche of coursebooks in ebook form over the next couple of years. The fact that entire education systems are now going paperless has pushed ELT rapidly to a tipping point. Ebooks have been around (and talked about in ELT) for years. But it’s the iPad – with a couple of years of lag – which is changing the whole landscape of ELT publishing by emboldening ministries of education, universities and schools to go paperless. The rush to get something ready for these schools, though, could result in a lack of innovation. Maybe it’s not just the time pressure that’s causing that, though. Is it possible that years of experience and expertise in creating excellent print books aren’t much of an advantage when it comes to creating something brilliant for teaching and learning English on iPad? Whether that’s the case or not, the expectations of schools and students are changing, and a textbook replica, no matter how interactive or cool-looking is likely not to cut it soon. Something more ‘native’ to the tablet environment is needed.

Next generation ELT coursebooks

You may not have detected a huge amount of excitement in my description of print replica or even interactive e-textbooks. That’s because they’re not very exciting. They add some marginal benefits over print, but is it really enough to make up for what you lose when you move away from books? Quite a few people lately have told me that there’s a generational divide here: anyone under the age of about 20 simply doesn’t notice the disadvantages of digital when compared to paper. If that’s true, then maybe younger people will be more tolerant of the clunkiness of using an e-textbook which is derived directly from a printed book. I suspect regular tablet users are going to be more demanding, though. Given the level of interactivity and the quality of design and user experience that can be found in a 99p app, then anything that isn’t super-slick is going to grate.

So, that means we need a total reinvention of the coursebook, right? If so, here are some of the questions that it might be interesting to think about as we start to tackle that challenge:

  • What would an ELT e-textbook look like if it was designed by people who had never seen a print book, but who use iPads every day?
  • How might (or should) content be different when you’re not bound by the limitations of print – but you are bound by the limitations of a 10″ (or smaller) touchscreen?
  • Beyond content, how could we seamlessly integrate the features built in to a tablet? Audio and video recording, networking, file sharing and synching, the accelerometer, the classroom management possibilities of tools such as Nearpod.
  • How would you design it if you were coming from a web or app development background, with no knowledge of (or interest in) print design conventions and paradigms?
  • Would the pedagogical approach of your course change in response to all of this? If so, how? Is there such a thing as ‘digital pedagogy’?
  • How would you make the most of the fact that an e-textbook has more dimensions than a print textbook? The dimension of time (activities where students work against the clock, or where the content changes in some way over time), or conditional logic (if the student does “x” then “a” happens; if they do “y” then “b” happens).
  • Who would you want to work with in developing this kind of e-textbook?

I don’t think anyone really knows all of the answers yet – but it’s going to be a fun couple of years while everyone tries to work all of this out!

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11 thoughts on “The 5 EdTech trends of ELT part 4: e-textbooks”

  1. The point is well made: simply providing textbooks in digital format is obtuse to say the least! Digital environments offer more freedom, more dimensions, which digital product design should exploit. We should be thinking in terms of digital pedagogy, how to move classroom teaching into these dimensions, not just aping what print products already do perfectly well. In order to create new ELT learning products for iPads, we need to try and empty our heads of preconceptions related to book design. One of the main challenges is that digital pedagogy is too new for anyone to have started defining it yet. The cutting edge of digital pedagogy is techie-minded teachers all over the world experimenting in their classrooms.
    My only problem with the list of points for the future development ELT textbook is that it is i-Pad-centric. Apart from anything else, isn’t creating this kind of monopoly economically and socially undesirable? We complain enough about Microsoft …. In both the classical and the new ‘flipped classroom’ model of good practice in language teaching classroom time should be ‘ heads up’: students shouldn’t be heads down, bent over their books (or screens) but be communicating and interacting. As far as I can see at the moment, the great strength of digital technology is its power as a self-study tool and, particularly in language-learning, how it can facilitate student-student and student-teacher interaction beyond the classroom. Can digital products be developed that mediate or enhance or even generate classroom interactions? Also, is getting rid of printed books altogether another case of baby and bathwater? Personally, I think there might still be a place for them in the mix (although defending this position would be a whole other post). The zeitgeist is digital and we have to accommodate it, but, in the long-term, I think the future of ELT products will turn out to be a judicious blend, but one which maximizes the potential of the digital ingredient to a far degree than now.

    • Thanks Anna – some good points there. I agree, the idea of a class full of students staring at their iPads for an hour and half doesn’t sound great in terms of actual language learning. Beyond IWB software and classroom management tools like Nearpod, has anyone ever done a really decent digital product designed specifically to enhance learning in the classroom? Yet another question/challenge to add to my list, I think!

      I agree there’s no good reason why print coursebooks shouldn’t continue to have a place – but I think they’re simply going to fall victim to the tide of history, despite that.

      And yes, when I say ‘iPad’, I really mean ‘tablet’. It’s just that the vast majority of tablets being used are iPads (still).

      • Laurie, this is an excellent article which raises some very salient points. I agree that ideally an e-textbook should not simply be a “replica” of a traditional print textbook (it is a question I’ve been raising in a professional capacity for some time) – it should add value and provide user functionality that a traditional textbook does not. Also, as you say what this might look like in future would benefit from educational technology/publishing companies drawing on the expertise of tech-savvy teachers who have already experimented with technology in the classroom and have “hands on” experience of any issues raised, what works and what is “ideally” needed.
        I, for one, am very interested to see how this all pans out over the next few years (from a professional and personal point of view – I have a young child). As to whether or not all this means the demise of the traditional textbook, I feel that you are probably right even though I would like to think that a blended solution will prevail at least for a while to come.

  2. Depending from which corner of the world you are writing from, the digital revolution with classes of tablets has already arrived and it is generally accepted that the digital classroom will arrive in good time. To suggest that there is a rush of publishers developing coursebooks in ebook format is a trifle premature – I know of just one publisher developing just one coursebook – and the suggestion that the world is ready to keep taking the tablets overlooks a few basic facts:
    1. Teacher training requirements
    2. Teacher resistance – admittedly a generation issue
    3. Speed and breadth of broadband required – even in Europe
    4. Funding for the end-user – rich and poor students, rich and poor schools.
    5. Comparative replacement costs if a tablet or coursebook is lost, stolen or damaged.
    6. BEBC’s sales of digital products account for less than 2% of turnover – and that includes books on teaching with interactive whiteboards. (BEBC sells over £5m worth of ELT material per annum)


    • Thanks for commenting, John – good to have your input and to see a more sceptical view. I don’t think it’s premature to say the publishers are all working on tablet versions of coursebooks. I know for a fact that 3 of the ‘big 4’ are, and I’d be amazed if the 4th one isn’t, too. Whether they’re right to be doing so is the real question – but I actually think there is no choice, since major customers are beginning to demand ebook versions. They’re doing this because they’re investing in the hardware, and so need content for their tablets. Again, whether they’re right to be investing in tablets is a good question – there are all sorts of pressures behind their decisions to do so. The first 5 of your facts are certainly issues that will have to be dealt with – and that’s going to happen patchily. There’s no way we’re going to see tablets as a standard part of every EFL classroom anytime soon – but it will become the majority over a period of a few years (unless some new piece of tech comes along to make tablets irrelevant).

      The % of digital sales at BEBC is interesting, and thanks for sharing. Of course, that figure is quite a lot higher (and growing fast) for the major publishers. Pearson, for example, say digital represents over 50% of their overall business – although I’m sure it’s less for their ELT group at the moment. Does BEBC sell online courses, apps or ebooks? If you’re mainly in the business of selling physical products, then digital will always be a small part of the overall mix.

  3. Hi Laurie,

    That´s a wonderful article – thank you.

    I ´m interested in any teachers, or educators with material I can incorporate into an LMS to create online schools. I desperately need content. My current project Hotel English is an online school for the Hotel industry. As a chef and English teacher it´s been a dream of mine for quite some time. Presently I have about 40 hours of material – and have incorporated voice recognition technology inside the course, and then replicated the modules in a smartphone app. But, my ´point really is that there is demand for content, especially interactive content and I think the market is growing rapidly; I don´t mean a course either – an ebook I think is much better. It still has that feeling of turning a page. I love them .

    It´s not often that I agree with everything said in an article, but this one is bang in in my e-book.

    Exciting times.

    Thanks again,

  4. This is a great article, Laurie. I think that publishers have temporarily lost their bearings with regard to proper digital educational products. So desperate have they been to plug the gaps and meet the new demands of markets, especially emerging ones, that they have forgotten their primary purpose, which is to publish sound educational products. A perfect example of this was the cheesy page turning animation that you mentioned. I remember that this was a requirement whenever the subject of digital books came up a couple of years ago.
    The paperless classroom offers a distinct set of challenges to educational content owners, especially in the ELT industry. With a tablet led or BYOD classroom every student has an audio player and a video player. Pages cannot be turned to, in fact teachers cannot easily see what is being looked at – the screens are reflective, small, and flat. This means that content needs to be published in different versions: one for the student, one for the teacher (beamed onto a whiteboard, with the audio that the student’s version may not have), and perhaps a self study version that log into the school’s LMS to post scores. I wonder if the paperless classroom may go the same way as the paperless office.

    • An interesting comment Matt. However, when you say, the publishers’ ‘primary purpose … is to publish sound educational products,’ one is inclined to add that the primary purpose of any publisher is and has always been to make PROFIT. With the help of good products of course.

  5. As a web designer/developer/language teacher, a topic that interests me greatly.
    I think there’s a great deal that can be learned and applied to this debate from the experience of the web in general, which is after all, already a highly successful publishing platform. Even more so now that the line between “apps” and “websites” is increasingly blurred, resulting in what are known as “webapps” – websites that can be installed on devices and accessed offline. These webapps require no “store” for their distribution, and are “device agnostic”, meaning they runs happily on any web-enabled device, from a phone to a desktop computer.
    An additional advantage of the webs is (post-Flash) its accessibility, which essentially means disabled users can access the content, say using a screen reader (as I have been teaching a blind student on a one-to-one basis for many years, another issue close to my heart). I believe there’s a moral obligation not to exclude disabled users. eBooks and native apps ignore these users. The web, as a general rule, does not, and we should take inspiration from this (and it’s a antidote to cynicism that in a context as diverse and anarchic as the web, the community has reached an agreement to put the needs of disabled users at the forefront of the development process).


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