Evolution of the ETextbook

The experience of an eTextbook will be as important as the information it contains.

By David Grebow, Principal Learning Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

The eTextbook, a digital and greatly enhanced version of the print textbook, is in the process of transforming how we learn. The evolution has been fast, and the pace of change promises to increase even faster through the increased use of RFL (Reading for Learning) apps. These appsenable learning, make eTextbooks “smarter,” and give rise to Content as a Service (CaaS), according to new research by Brandon Hall Group.

The concept of CaaS is that as we continue to move from analog to digital, content no longer will be viewed as a product to be commoditized. Content, supported by RFL apps, will be viewed as a service that will add value for learners and enable the learning process. These new versions of eTextbooks will be used much differently than when they first began to appear in 1995.

Download Figure 1 (The Evolution of the ETextbook) below.

  • 1995 - Analog to Digital PC: When the printed textbooks started to become more widely available online using the PC.
  • 2007 - Digital to Mobile eReader/Tablet: When the online version of the eTextbooks was available on eReaders and then tablets, where onboard apps provided some of the first features that enhanced the eTextbook (highlighting, searching, note taking, resizing print).
  • 2008 - Reading for Learning (RFL) Apps: The needs of learners using eTextbooks exceeded the early features that came with eReaders and tablets, and specific RFL apps, with significantly more features, were created to publish, deliver and use eTextbooks.
  • 2013 - Content as a Service (CaaS): The RFL apps that worked to enhance and enable e-learning from eTextbooks became paramount in the marketing and sales of eTextbooks, and led the way for a new type of eTextbook dramatically different from the earlier versions.

ETextbook use and increased sales is due in part to the reduced cost over print textbooks. But the RFL apps are as much of a driver as the reduced cost—and reduced weight of carrying around textbooks. They are also the primary reason onboard features that come with eReaders (e.g., bookmarking, highlighting, note taking, etc.) are not enough when compared to these more fully featured apps that enable an even more effective use of eTextbooks, including:

  • Audio for multimedia
  • Video in a variety of formats
  • Simulations
  • Educational games
  • Animations
  • Pre- and post-tests
  • Formative and summative quizzes
  • Adaptive testing
  • Networked social learning
  • Study groups
  • Analytic datasets in many shapes and sizes
  • Virtual and flipped classes
  • Communities of learning and practice
  • Virtual classes

The Rise of the ETextbook

The rapid growth of eReader devices, aside from changing the way we will read, has created a new, fast-growing market for eTextbooks. Not as widespread or as rapidly growing as the eBooks we read for pleasure, the eTextbook has been slower to increase sales for a specific reason: Almost all tablets are multipurpose; reading an eBook is just one of the many features they offer. The eReader functionality is configured to play to the sweet spot in the book market, what we call “reading for pleasure.” The eTextbook market, on the other hand, is all about “reading for learning” (RFL), currently a distant second in terms of usage and available content.

RFL requires a different approach and mindset than reading for pleasure. The eTextbook requires several features to turn itself into a tool for learning. A limited number of these features (e.g., highlighting, note taking) were built into the early eReaders and tablets. Despite these limits, eTextbooks have proven to be popular and show amazing growth.

ETextbooks gradually are becoming the core of higher education teaching programs, and the migration to digital is accelerating as lower-cost tablets continue to enter the market. As a result of the widespread use of these mobile devices, it is forecast that by 2018 almost 50 percent of the $8.8 billion textbook market in the U.S. will be eTextbooks.

Download Figure 2 (ETextbook Market Remains on Course to Pass 50 Percent by 2018) below.

RFL Apps for Trainers, Instructors, and Administrators

Students are not the only ones to benefit from this marriage of technologies. Authors, instructors, trainers, and administrators also are reaping the benefits of the data that eTextbooks and their RFL apps can capture and generate.

The eTextbooks and RFL apps can provide data related to reading and learning from eTextbooks:

  • The path students take as they navigate through the eTextbook
  • How much time is spent on each page
  • Scrolling habits
  • Whether students are making notes and highlights
  • Whether they are taking tests
  • The results of the tests that are taken
  • Materials have been downloaded
  • Which materials seem to be read and used the most or the least

Imagine that the author of an eTextbook can find out, across thousands of readers, which parts of the book generate the most questions and perhaps need a rewrite that provides a better explanation of a concept. Or an instructor or trainer can see how students are doing across several classes and where they need more help, not only in the aggregate but as individuals. Or an administrator can discover how well an instructor is teaching based on more than summative tests or course finals. All of this and more can be done with eTextbooks and the online apps that can provide these services.

All of this data could be captured and graphically displayed. Students could take the post-test multiple times to gain mastery and quickly focus on the material they have not mastered and need to study, then jump directly to that information more effectively. The eTextbook and app can provide greater opportunities for designing and developing better eTextbooks and determine how well the eTextbook is working quicker and easier than ever before.

A New Way of Learning      

The perfect storm of the widespread use of digital devices, mobile technology, eTextbooks, and RFL apps will change the way we learn. Here’s an example of that change:

I’m sitting at my desk in 2018. My biology eTextbook is on my tablet and my e-learning app is helping me take notes. I read the following: “The biosphere is interconnected with three other spheres of the physical environment: the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, and the atmosphere.” I press the ASK THE EXPERT button and an e-mail form pops up. “What,” I write, “does the term, ‘Gaia,’ have to do with all the spheres?” The answer will probably be in my inbox before I go to sleep.

I watch the animation of plate tectonics, and see California start to slide toward the ocean in a massive earthquake. Skipping the I Dig the Earthgame, I decide I want to test myself to see if I’m getting it. So I touch the “TEST ME” button, and a menu comes down asking what kind of test do I want: “Page,” “Chapter,” ”Section,” or “Book?” I click on “Chapter,” and a test of the chapter appears. I answer the questions, get most right, and the ones I miss are automatically turned into flashcards. I skim all the sentences I highlighted when I was reading, check the notes my friends sent about the course, answer a few questions they asked, and bookmark my place. I am done for the night.

First and foremost, content supported by a RFL app will be viewed as a service. The experience of that content will be the differentiating factor for the success of the eTextbook. The greater the number of learning services provided with the content, the more value the eTextbook will have. The experience of an eTextbook will be as important as the information it contains. The ability of the eTextbook to truly become relationship-centered, empathize with the learner, and actually help the learning process take place will be the hallmarks of these next-generation eTextbooks.

David Grebow is the principal learning analyst for Brandon Hall Group, a leading research and analyst organization in the performance improvement industry with more than 10,000 clients globally and 20 years of delivering research and advisory services. For more information, visit http://go.brandonhall.com/homeand http://go.brandonhall.com/membership_TM

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