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e-Books for the Future: Here but Hiding?

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Brian Whalley outlines some developments in e-book technologies and links them to existing ways of presenting textbook information.

Although they were not called e-books at the time, Michael Hart's Project Gutenberg started digitising existing print on paper editions for public access in the 1970s. Since then, the term e-book has come to have a variety of meanings and related concepts. Here I want to explore the direction associated with my day job as a researcher and teacher within the UK Higher Education system. My viewpoint may thus be somewhat idiosyncratic compared to Ariadne's normal clientele but I am particularly interested in the information technologist's role as an intermediary between academic author and student reader. Some of the following is conjecture - although it is based on what technology, both hard and software we already have. It does not need to look too far in the future. I believe that this is important as it could help guide the provision of computer and library facilities for educational institutions. We have relatively simple, but substantial, edifices for print on paper; what provision should be made over the next five years? In particular, what should the provision be for students over those years? In turn, this has implications for what academic authors and publishers should, or might, be doing, not just to take advantage of the technology for its own sake, but to use technology to produce a better 'educational product'.


The term 'e-book' includes the hardware, a suitable device to read electronic media, perhaps better called 'e-book readers'. Reviews, including Penny Garrod's 2003 article [1], mention various manufacturers but with advancing technology this is now out of date. For example, E-ink (electrophoretic) technology with iRex (Philips) iLiad ER 0100 and Sony Libre units have emerged. Although these are relatively expensive, prices will undoubtedly fall. These units are less weighty and bulky than many a textbook so the 'can't read them on the train' factor is less significant. Indeed, with the price of many academic books at about £25, purchasing the hardware might be a good investment, albeit for a tutor rather than a student. Their screens are small, about A5, so while fine for a paperback novel, a larger format would not be easy to read. As yet, they have only 16-level greyscale rather than colour. There is evidence that students find it easier to adjust to reading on the screen than 'maturer' readers. This reluctance to read (as opposed to view) on screen may stem from using small screens with poor contrast. Yet technology is always working in our favour. I am currently writing this on my laptop with 15" screen but plugged into a 19" TFT monitor. On this a portrait page of A4 can be seen natural size and it is not difficult to read. There is also screen space to spare for other tools. Again, prices are continually falling, resolution and contrast control are improving so on-screen reading will be made much easier. Unfortunately, TFT screens are still power-hungry and somewhat unsociable on trains. Large, roll-up screens are still, 'along real soon now'. Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPC ) with wireless connectivity and Bluetooth are now available. Samsung's new UMPC, the Q1, has very good battery life and a touch screen with an excellent handwriting recognition package but doesn't have e-ink capability. With moves towards off-line, Web-based applications (such a Google's 'Writely' word processor and spreadsheet) there is no need for a CD drive. Flash memory will take over from hard disk drives for tablet or UMPC machines. Like screens, battery life and power requirements are all benefiting from advances in technology, so really usable machines at reasonable prices are not far off.

The hardware is important as it provides what readers may need to exploit with the software available and link this to specific requirements. We should include audio here as this needs to be taken along with visual and the integration of the two is already taking place with podcasts and vodcasts. A teaching conjecture: an 'e-book reader' with audio so that a student can follow a reading of Beowulf, see the Old English and a modern translation on-screen, and highlight and make notes on either. Perhaps this is already possible.

Books, Magazines and Scholarly Monographs

We have traditional print-on-paper (p-o-p; 'flimsy-ware'?) taking up shelf space the world over. Buying a book or magazine in hard copy is an everyday experience as is, for many, downloading music or audio as an MP3 file. Evidence suggests that students visit libraries in person less and less but retrieve their information electronically from wherever they happen to be with an Internet connection. Why buy a textbook if you can get the information on the Web? Whether this is the 'right' information is a moot point.

Downloading books has been possible for some time and the Baen technology and pricing model is almost a standard. Magazines can now be bought in Zinio format instead of the hard copy for a price which is the equivalent of the print version. Lightweight, colour e-book readers will be a viable way of reading and storage and therefore referencing. Further, scribbling on e-text will not be a mortal sin.

Google Books now offers the Google Library Project [2]:

'The Library Project's aim is simple: make it easier for people to find relevant books - specifically books they wouldn't find any other way such as those that are out of print - while carefully respecting authors' and publishers' copyrights. Our ultimate goal is to work with publishers and libraries to create a comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalogue of all books in all languages that helps users discover new books and publishers discover new readers.

Wikipedia has also developed a resource under ''. Such initiatives will be valuable to academic researchers, students and anybody investigating a topic for interest. However, my experience suggests that a very small percentage of academics are aware of these possibilities now, let alone realise their potential. Full text searching via suitable search engines will become increasingly sophisticated with increased coverage. Yet all these aspects, however useful, are not exactly novel in as far as they do not present 'new' modes of learning and teaching.

All of these 'flimsyware' forms are related to what one might call formal statements, whether texts of novels, parliamentary debates, newspapers or a motorcycle magazine. Once published, it is available. However, in one sense they are then inviolable. Mistakes occur, corrections need to be made and readers offer criticism, comments and additional information. True letters to the editors of newspapers and online and blog comments will work with opinions rapidly but there is a transience associated with such comments that should not be the case with academic textbooks or monographs etc. Let me now refer to some ideas and concepts that relate to textbooks and quality academic publishing.

Reusable Educational Objects (REOs)

I recently gave a talk to Queens University of Belfast (QUB) staff as part of a workshop on 'e-books'. A few minutes into my PowerPoint illustrated talk, I realised that the PowerPoint presentation itself was, in effect, an e-book. It could be viewed and listened to, synchronously and asynchronously after storage and retrieved from anywhere. Moreover, as an entirety it could be considered as a 'learning object' or a single slide could be used and reused.

Reusable educational objects (REO) or reusable learning objects (I prefer the wider term) are becoming an area of interest in education, especially in Higher Education. This stems from the ideas of reusability from 'mass' e-learning in the USA and from there developed the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) as well as some resources such as MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) [3]. This tends to have full resources such as a slide set or a Web page. Lecturers should try this as there may well be all sorts of useful material available within the archive, often free.

However, the real use of REOs is yet to come. Taking two examples of resources (often called 'assets') that might be used in a lecture: a digital image of a landform and a PowerPoint slide illustrating an idea. Both are digital, both useful to me in one lecture and for others or in another form, e.g. backup for a lab practical. They are in appropriate files on my computer and so can be used, alone or in conjunction with other objects as needed. Importantly, they have metadata associated with them. Images from digital cameras already have Exif (Exchangeable image file format) metadata and, by using a tool such as 'Informator', this can be inspected and other data added. Assets can thus be shared with colleagues, although copyright problems may arise and I may wish to charge commercial concerns.

Two aspects just mentioned come into play in an example which has relevance to e-books. Recently, I walked into our cartographers office. They prepare maps, diagrams etc for teaching and research and are paid for by my institution. An image scanned from a textbook was being re-drawn to make it more readable for a PowerPoint presentation. Aside from the copyright issue, why was this necessary when I have my own version already available? My digital asset could have gone to my colleague with no extra expense of time or money and still could have been elaborated ('re-purposed' is a commonly used word here) as required for other educational tasks. Unfortunately, neither my cartographer nor tutor colleagues were aware of reusing digital assets.

Digital Asset Repositories and Management Systems

Many HE institutions are establishing digital repositories and asset managers, sometimes referred to as a DAM (Digital Asset Management) system. These do what they say, being sophisticated databases of images, digitised texts etc. Protocols are necessary for this management as well as metadata for each asset. DAM systems are complex as they require SQL for interrogation but tools for cataloguing, metadata addition as well as searching and collation and workflow tools. They may also incorporate copyright handling and commercial management. A commonly used open source system is 'Dspace', a Hewlett-Packard and MIT collaboration. This is now frequently used by the Open Source movement for academic archiving and requesting research papers [4].

Commercially, Intrallect's 'intraLibrary' is intended to bring together various assets, including the BBC's 'Jam' initiative [5]. Although 'Jam' is intended for five- to sixteen-year olds, such children will be able to, 'explore, learn, create' interactively and thus be fully aware of the capability of repositories when they reach FE and HE.

Intrallect has also been awarded the contract to work on JISC 's JORUM initiative [6]. JORUM is a project designed to operate as an academic teaching repository for UK-based institutions [7]. It thus brings together the concepts of REOs and digital repositories which can be used by UK academics. Having provided, ultimately, a variety of assets in repositories how might academics (and students) use them? Before answering this, it is worthwhile mentioning another new concept which, in simple forms, is already here: Personal Learning Environments.

Personal Learning Environments

If studying on-screen is to become commonplace, then a variety of software tools need to be made available. If students cannot, or will not, visit libraries [8] then they need tools to help make electronic visits easier. This needs to be more than a set of 'Office' facilities, a browser and Google. I detect a move from Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) for certain types of teaching towards Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). There still needs to be repositories, not least where module source material will be held. But what about the student, with mobile, laptop computing WiFi facilities available? What does the student require to work in a personal learning space - wherever that might be; college locations, flat, hospital, etc? A move towards personal learning environments is welcome. Indeed, some forms are already available, one is based on the 'Boddington' VLE [9]. The 'widgets' on my Mac dashboard include: dictionary/thesaurus, BBC Radio/TV schedule, unit convertor, scientific calculator, iTunes connector and colour wheel/Hex coder. All these, and more, would help personal study; anything that might be useful to ease the task in hand. This might be, for example, a critique of a section of an e-book. To this end another set of tools might be needed: search engine aggregators, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds from agencies such as the BBC, mind and concept mapping tools, either as free, share or commercial ware. The technology is keeping pace with student needs. However, many tutors will not be guiding students in this direction because they themselves are not aware of them. Notably, innovation is student-directed and information scientists and librarians are the best fitted to provide this knowledge of tools as much as where to get the information.

Wikipedia and 'Portal Wikis'

Despite the criticism levelled at Wikipedia there have been comparisons showing that it works well [10]. I admit to using it considerably at times. Although in my subject area it is rather under-developed, I find it good for acronym expansion and to get a feel for a topic. If you consider this article has been under-referenced and that you are unaware of some of the terms used (e.g. SCORM, Zinio, Baen) then type them into Wikipedia on your personal learning environment. I find it works well and gives me both the information I need as well as (mostly) useful hyperlinks. If it is not there, or not what you would expect (e.g. try typing 'PLE'), then a knowledgeable person can always make this addition to the Wikipedia database. This is much more reputable, at least in my experience, than it sounds. Students use it a great deal, staff far less so - even if they have heard of it.

It is but one step to create a portal wiki, ie subject-related. Usually, this is a form of discussion centre or way of presenting personal information. However [11] has recently shown a restricted editing form of encyclopedia (Encyclopedia of Computational Neuroscience; Dynamical Systems and Computational Intelligence). These have curators and quality control of articles by peer review. A recent experimental venture, forking from Wikipedia is 'Citizendium' (Citizendium. org or use Wikipedia). This project will use 'experts' as subject specialists to check publicly-provided information. The qualifications of the experts will be openly stated. For teaching, I am currently producing a geomorphology wiki for my Level 2 module in 'Landscapes and landforms'. This is extended with hyperlinks to provide a resource base for the module and students help in this construction. One important aspect is that it can be used non-serially. If a reader is unsure about a term or phrase used then it is easy to bypass the current reading and concentrate on the term not understood. This can be done easily and makes wikis an important learning tool.

Publishers and Textbooks

When preparing my talk on e-books for Queens I was also finishing a review of a textbook. This was a conventional print offering from a well-known publisher; very good academically and student-orientated. However, the material presented required moving between sections and chapters. This would be mitigated by hypertext. My major criticism was that there was nothing in colour. This could have been solved with more expensive printing or, preferably, by an e-version. The authors said that they laboured long over 'Illustrator' to produce the diagrams. I feel their labour of love had been let down by the publishers. Even then, the price is £25 - a driver to widen the educational, let alone the digital, divide.

I then compared this to a textbook (in colour) on a related subject; still not an e-text but having a support Web site with ready-made PowerPoints! This of course is helpful and a start towards REOs, either as individual slides or as a ready-made lecture for the hard-pressed new academic with RAE potential to fulfil. Yet the quality of images in the PowerPoint slides was poor. In some cases illegible text and generally a lack of contrast that would make students even in the middle rows strain their eyes and give up. The price of this book, aimed at first year undergraduates, is over £30.

The Nature of Future Textbooks

Can we now speculate about what future e-textbooks might look like? The simplest will be monograph-like with chapters, fully searchable (and no need for an index) with any diagrams etc having their own metadata and, if necessary, copyright information. Copyright here would include Creative Commons licence agreements. This area continues to be contentious, not least with respect to the question of who holds copyright and IP rights in UK Higher Education institutions (HEIs). Moreover, it also brings into focus the costs of producing diagrams or maps for books. If my institution pays the salary for the cartographers, why do authors pass diagrams to commercial publishers apparently free of charge? (We need not discuss further the remainder of the publishing cycle where an institution has to re-purchase books for its library from the publisher.) The simplest arrangement is for the institution itself to publish the book and manage this through its DAM system. PDFs can be distributed electronically for the purchaser to bind or make available on an e-book reader. If required, limited paper print runs could be commissioned through a local bindery. Inter-HEI agreements could keep costs low between libraries but several marketing models can be envisaged. Such in-house publication is not new, and many university presses presumably started in this way, but procedures based on open-source models could keep prices down. This would apply both for low print runs of specialised books as much as electronic versions. The same process is applicable to e-journals and a good example is the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning [12].

Many textbooks, usually in science or engineering, are divided into sections and sub-sections to aid finding material. Sections of digital text may be a more useful way of referencing than a topic/page index. This applies to writing as well as reading and studying. Importantly, hypertext linking of these sections from a contents page is easy but the great advantage is to link sections, or words in sections, by hypertext. Moreover, in electronic editions it becomes easy to add new material, correct errors and even to tell subscribers that such changes have been made. The name 'dynabook' comes to mind; essentially Alan Kay's view of a laptop computer, although it was the capabilities in software that he was concerned with rather than the hardware. On looking up 'Dynabook' in Wikipedia I noticed the following entry:

'Neal Stephenson's science fiction novel The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer gives an account of a book constructed with nanotechnology that speaks to its owner with lessons that are age-specific.'

Now that really would be something. Textbooks need to be written at an 'appropriate' level. Too much detail or complexity or the introduction of higher-level material may well be beyond the level of the student. This makes it difficult for the writer as much as a student. Students however would have to go to another textbook to add further to their knowledge and understanding. Yet this requirement could easily be achieved given the adaptability of even present-day software technology. Perhaps there are no surprises for guessing that I am advocating a wiki-like structure.


The writing of such an e-textbook could be done individually or shared easily with other authors and with restrictions on who could make changes, unlike Wikipedia as normally seen. Adding more complex material could be added as a box in the text - although this may also be used to show examples or explanations of related material. For example, in a plant morphology book there could be a box about photosynthesis. However, some students might want an explanation or refresher about electron transfer. This could be provided within that 'wiki-book' or even to a quite different wiki-book if that were available. The whole structure could be formulated with such additions included as required. Readability, even on a small e-book reader, might be enhanced. But textbooks are not usually written in this way. Hypertext provides an entirely suitable way of providing this material. The material itself might be left as Open Source with illustrations (as educational objects) being Creative Commons, probably supplied via a DAM system or, more likely, a set of repositories at several institutions. With the present system, material used from JORUM would necessitate restriction to the UK.

Will it work? My learning wiki, mentioned above, currently takes a traditional dictionary entry approach to terms in my subject area. To this I am about to add sections from a short textbook I wrote many years ago and to which I now want to add new text, illustrations and references. Students have the ability to ask questions on the wiki (rather than add material) so I should be able to see what needs addition or clarification as the process of writing and use unfolds.

Of course, I am not the first. From the 'Dynabook' Wikipedia entry I then went to the entry for 'Neal Stephenson' and found the following:

'With the 2003 publication of Quicksilver, Stephenson debuted The Metaweb, a wiki (using the same software as Wikipedia) annotating the ideas and historical period explored in the novel'.

Needless to say, Wikipedia itself has arrived at the same conclusion via its 'Wikimedia Free Textbook' and Wikimedia-textbooks' projects to the present 'Wikibooks [13]. It will be interesting to see how these ideas about e-textbooks develop. They do exploit the advantages of hypertext, immediacy of adding material and assets, and stem from the Open Source movement.


Looking to the future can be dangerous, via the egg-on-face route, especially with technology. However, the developments suggested here are with us now and e-texts could easily be integrated with comprehensive, although expensive, learning tools such as Tegrity's 'Campus' [14]. This is an institutionally based system linking with a VLE. However, I suspect simple personal learning environments (PLEs) will become popular as Web-based applications (spreadsheets, word processors and bibliographic tools) develop for use on Wi-Fi-connected e-book readers. Digital, reusable assets will also become increasingly common. Their integration into learning environments, together with some form of e-book (or wikibook), offers a better student experience than 'chalk, talk and a textbook'. Perhaps this integration can be best achieved by information professionals linking skills with academic authors and educational technologists; but I fear that copyright lawyers might not be too far away. Experience does show that inexpensive, easy-to-use tools are taken on with alacrity by the public at large, and that people are prepared to share resources (e.g. Flikr, YouTube). Simplicity of operation may take off educationally. Wilson has described the EBONI Project [15] and it will be interesting to see how some of the techniques she described can be used for the evaluation of wikibooks in their various guises.


  1. Garrod, P. Ebooks in UK libraries: Where are we now? October 2003, Ariadne, Issue 37
  2. Google Library Project
  3. Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching
  4. Dspace
  5. BBC curriculum gets kids to jam, 27 January 2006
  6. Kraan, W. Intrallect wins JORUM UK national repository contract, September 2004
  7. JORUM
  8. Hyatt, S and Connaway, L.S. Utilizing E-books to Enhance Digital Library Offerings, October 2002, Ariadne, Issue 33
  9. CETIS, Centre for educational technology interoperability standards
  10. Giles, J. Special Report: Internet encyclopaedias go head to head, Nature 438, 15 December 2005, 900-901
  11. Scholarpedia
  12. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning
  13. Wikibooks
  14. Tegrity 'Campus'
  15. Wilson, R. E-books for students: EBONI, March 2001, Ariadne, Issue 27

Author Details

W. Brian Whalley
Professor of Geomorphology
School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology
Queens University of Belfast
Belfast BT7 1NN

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Date published: 
30 October 2006

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How to cite this article

Brian Whalley. "e-Books for the Future: Here but Hiding?". October 2006, Ariadne Issue 49

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