Reviewing E-Books

By Rhea R. Borja — June 13, 2008 6 min read

In physics teacher Ken Tong’s class, students don’t lug heavy hardcover science textbooks from their backpacks when he tells them to open their books. Instead, his students at Ballard High School in Seattle boot up class computers, go online, and open virtual textbooks.

After they log on, the students can read and listen to these digital books from Kinetic Books, a Seattle-based company. They can also play interactive simulations and watch animated diagrams on such concepts as acceleration and momentum. For instance, to learn about projectile motion, students set the “x” and “y” velocities so an on-screen juggler can keep multiple balls in the air. If they don’t complete the equation correctly, the juggler drops the balls.

Tong, meanwhile, can track his students’ progress on his computer. “This has changed my whole style of teaching,” he says. “It’s been revolutionary.”

Technology Counts 2008 is Education Week‘s annual report on educational technology.

Virtual textbooks—some with interactive zing to better teach a generation of students weaned on Xbox and iTunes—are attracting attention from schools such as Ballard High. The 130,000-student San Diego school system, for example, has piloted virtual textbooks and is working to adopt such textbooks districtwide. The Virtual School in the 310,000-student Clark County, Nev., school district, which includes Las Vegas, began using digital textbooks in 2006; students can access them on hand-held devices such as iPods or iPhones.

Yet while many schools use Web 2.0 tools such as learning-management systems and blogs, virtual textbooks have yet to gain widespread traction in the classroom. Their appeal is mitigated by structural, cultural, and other challenges, say experts such as Leigh E. Zeitz, an associate professor in instructional technology at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls.

Those challenges include access for all students, textbook-adoption committees’ limited experience in evaluating digital-learning resources, the paucity of virtual textbooks by the three major publishers in the K-12 market, and the difficulties in training teachers to make the switch from traditional textbooks to digital versions.

“I don’t know that the virtual textbook is here yet,” Zeitz says. “Who assures that the included information is accurate and unbiased? What does it take to access electronic textbooks? There are many issues.”

Since a virtual textbook has no front or back cover, its presentation and contents vary greatly depending on who or what company produces it. Some virtual textbooks are simple, monochromatic copies of their print counterparts. Others include quizzes and links to an audio narrative of the text in two or more languages. Still others offer all of the above as well as a rich array of audio and visual multimedia and links to outside resources.

While subject-area experts working for companies most often put together virtual textbooks, teachers and other educators around the world can build or contribute content for a wikibook, another type of virtual textbook.


1. Get the administrative green light. Does the administrative leadership in your district or school understand the positive impact virtual textbooks can have on learning?

2. Identify an on-site advocate and expert. You need a teacher, librarian, or other nonadministrative staff member at each school to keep classroom teachers focused and to train and support them in e-textbook integration.

3. Build a technical-support team. Teachers need classroom hardware and software support so they can focus primarily on creating and teaching academic content, rather than troubleshooting technical problems.

4. Showcase the results of using e-textbooks. Teachers need to see how digital books can help improve instruction at a faster rate than traditional texts.

5. Share ideas and lessons learned. Are other schools or districts using virtual textbooks? What have they learned?

6. Solicit feedback from district curriculum experts. They can look beyond the bells and whistles and measure the usefulness of the e-textbooks’ interactive features.

This area of free, unlicensed community content is where you see the most activity when it comes to virtual textbooks, some observers of the market say. But because of rigorous evaluation in the textbook-adoption process, they point out, many create-your-own virtual textbooks will likely remain supplementary to state and district-approved books.

The Washington-based nonprofit group Curriki, for example, provides an online repository for supplementary K-12 curricula in mathematics, science, technology, reading and language arts, and foreign languages. And in early 2009, the organization will open a textbook wiki in which educators can use online tools to produce and edit sections and pages of an instructional textbook.

Digitizing Textbooks

The three big textbook publishers in the $6.2 billion K-12 education market—Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Co., London-based Pearson Education, and New York City-based McGraw-Hill Cos.—have made some inroads in producing virtual textbooks. But industry experts say most education publishing companies are not doing much in the virtual area.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘When are the publishers going to get with this?’ ” says Karen Fasimpaur, the president of K12 Handhelds, an educational technology company based in Long Beach, Calif., and a former project manager for several textbook publishers.

Q&A: The Value of Virtual Text

Erik Moeller, the deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that created Wikibooks to help educators and others develop their own virtual textbooks, was interviewed recently by Digital Directions freelance writer Rhea R. Borja at the South by Southwest Interactive technology conference in Austin, Texas. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.

DD: What influence do you envision Wikibooks will have over the next five years? How will the use of Wikibooks evolve?

Moeller: Wikibooks is one of many open, collaborative platforms for the development of free educational resources. I hope that we will see the development of a genuine ecosystem around free knowledge, with a lot of shared infrastructure (media repositories, tools, etc.). Of course, I hope that Wikibooks and the other Wikimedia projects will continue to be among the largest communities creating free educational content.

DD: Why should schools use Wikibooks for classroom instruction instead of print textbooks or other online educational curricula?

Moeller: All educational institutions will benefit from the development of an educational “commons” that is freely accessible and open to collaborative revision. The key benefits of this development will be cost, quality, and independence.

DD: Regarding Wikibooks, how can teachers keep up with the instructional material if it is constantly changing?

Moeller: The world is constantly changing, and the notion that teachers can take a snapshot of it, out of date by the time they receive it, and propagate it to the classroom is as limiting as it is simple. With an abundance of free learning resources, the role of teachers will be increasingly to be an intelligent guide for their students to find the materials that make the most sense to them, that are of the highest quality, and so forth. Right now, the online materials on Wikibooks and other sites will probably be, at best, complementary in any case.

DD: You say that the current business models around education textbooks will die. How do you see traditional textbook publishers adapting to that?

Moeller: Individuals, organizations, and governments that seek to promote education as a public good are making increased use of the Internet to disseminate information and to allow its unlimited reuse. Wikipedia demonstrates that economies of scale will favor these efforts. The publishers of proprietary educational resources will simply not be able to keep up with a broad coalition that makes education available freely and maintains it together. Proprietary publication of educational and scientific information will gradually fade away, and society will increasingly recognize scientific and educational endeavors as inherently communal.

Small curriculum companies and virtual-course providers such as Apex Learning Inc. are attempting to fill the void. And companies such as Farmington, Mich.-based Gale Inc., which produces academic-reference and curriculum-support material for schools and libraries, are also digitizing their content.

Teachers can customize their course materials from Gale’s database of articles, reference materials, video, and interactive graphics, and they and their students can download the material onto MP3 players such as iPods, says Jay Flynn, the company’s vice president and publisher.

Experts say publishers are doing more at the higher education level. College students, tired of the sticker shock they feel when they purchase textbooks, are clamoring for lower-cost alternatives. Unlike K-12 schools, colleges and their professors aren’t constrained by textbook-adoption rules. As a result, the vast majority of college textbooks have now been digitized, says Mark Nelson, a digital-content strategist for the National Association of College Stores, based in Oberlin, Ohio.

McGraw-Hill, for instance, has partnered with San Francisco-based Zinio, a magazine and textbook digital-publishing company, to digitize about 1,000 textbooks. Six textbook publishers have also partnered to support CourseSmart, a virtual-textbook service.

But whether the textbooks are being used at the K-12 or college level, publishers need to make better use of the Web 2.0 tools at their disposal to make virtual textbooks significantly more useful than print books, observers say.

Strengthening Technology

K-12 schools, for their part, need to change and strengthen their technology infrastructures to better integrate virtual textbooks, according to two-thirds of the curriculum directors surveyed for the “America’s Digital Schools 2006” report, produced by the education consulting firms Greaves Group, of San Diego, and Hayes Connection, of Littleton, Colo.

That’s a challenge that the San Diego school district is grappling with. The district has a five-year plan to move textbooks and other curricula online, and officials there are looking at low-cost technology hardware to ensure that every student has access to the online materials.

With textbook prices of $70 or more, and with each student needing four or more textbooks, districts are also becoming more vocal in asking textbook publishers to offer more digital textbooks at a lower cost. While college virtual textbooks are often much cheaper than print textbooks, most K-12 virtual textbooks cost just as much.

“It’s definitely a heavy-duty price,” says Essington Wade, the distance-learning director for Nevada’s Clark County school system and the principal of the district’s Virtual School, which serves 3,000 to 5,000 students a year. “Most of the companies are very open to reduced price, but it’s based on volume. It’s not cost-effective to do interactive when the publishers don’t get payback.”

The 815-student Dana Middle School in San Diego is capitalizing on interactive technology by offering virtual social studies textbooks to 5th and 6th graders, and having teachers help students create their own wikibooks.

“We’re using what the textbook vendors give us, but we’re also using homegrown tools to go further,” says Scott L. Irwin, the school’s vice principal.

Irwin, like other educators, would like to see virtual textbooks better use Web 2.0 tools to improve learning. “We’re not interested in a computer that just spits out flashcards,” he says. “Teaching is creating a lesson plan and throwing it out the door when kids aren’t getting it.”

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