Evolution Of The Textbook – Part One

By Gary Bass.

In this, the first part of our two part special on the evolution of text books, we will look at the transformation of paper-based texts into eBooks and ePubs and some of the resources currently on offer to enhance and, in some cases even replace, the traditional paper-based texts.

The evolution of written materials continues to change. Some innovations wither away when they are not popular or cost effective. Hard covered books continue to be sold, despite the premium price charged, as they maintain an economic level of popularity.

Electronic books or eBooks have undergone several iterations. Some were well received, but ultimately the format required a single function device and, when the device development faltered, so did the popularity of the eBook.

An education publishing industry has evolved alongside the traditional textbook. The industry takes an idea, develops materials in response to curriculum requirements and provides a resource for teachers and students to utilise in the on going quest for better understanding. The market decides which educational products survive and which educational products do not. There is a large investment by authors and their publishers in attempting to satisfy the vagaries of the education market.

A Good First Go

All of this is well established, however, many educators may have missed the announcement when Apple released an ePub creator tool for iPad in late January. iBooks Author is an application for Macintosh desktops and notebooks that produce eBooks for the iPad. The new EPUB3 standard provides many features not previously possible on any device, though they are restricted to the iPad and will not play on Kindle or Android devices. The new format promises to introduce a new standard of presentation and simple distribution for school and tertiary textbooks.

eBooks have been around for some time in a variety of formats andeach publisher has developed its own standards (ePub/ePub2/PDF/FLASH/HTML5). It should be noted that Flash and java eBooks do not work on iPads at all.

The New Challenge – Interactive

In secondary schools, access to computer and online technology has been largely removed as an issue. The completion of the National Secondary Schools Computer Fund (NSSCF) as part of the Federal Government’s Digital Education Revolution (DER) provided a computing device to each Year 9 to Year 12 student by July 2012.

The challenge for teachers and publishers is to create learning materials that are interactive, rather than just textbooks on a screen. The reduced cost of distribution and reduced weight for each student to carry are admirable improvements in themselves. The huge cost of providing a netbook should surely provide a better learning opportunity than merely a flat textbook on a screen, or the opportunity to Google search or watch Khan Academy on TeacherTube (YouTube is blocked in most schools).

Promises, Promises…

In Australia, the situation is one of a promise as access to the education section of the iBook Store has only extended to US based consumers thus far. While sample eBooks are available, and the creation tool is free from the Australian APP store, to become a registered author requires a new developer account with Apple. Furthermore, a decision to sell on the iBook store currently requires US tax accreditation to be arranged and an ISBN (international) to be obtained. These requirements ensure only the most determined Australian authors will publish with a view of getting a return on their labours.

Alternatively, schools can easily register with iTunes U, through iTunes, where course materials is posted for ready access.
At present, very few Australian schools are registered, however, several Australian universities already have a solid presence on iTunes U. The course materials are free and of an amazingly high standard. The Australian courses compare very well to equivalents from the UK and the US. There are several iTunes Us (for example iTunes U Australia, iTunes U USA and so on), but the entire collection can be selected to include Canada, France and Germany and so on. This is unlike the iTunes Store and the Apple Store, which has a local version for each country.

The numbers of Australian schools (and universities) making use of the iTunes U facility is expected to increase as each institution becomes aware of the usefulness of this technology, and can satisfy the criteria of quality consistency and longer term sustainability. The relatively small number of iPads in Australian classrooms may, at first, appear to limit the opportunities for innovation in education. However, it is important to remember that large improvements can be achieved quickly within a small market. Expectations regarding the use of digital text books has raisin significantly since the sample ePubs were released in iTunes. Technical requirements for publishing will be easily met for many local teaching practitioners, especially given the main requirements are focused around the ability to construct a quality course of learning, and copyright issues (more on that later).

Printing Textbooks In Australia

Many of the traditional textbook publishers in Australia have created online ‘books’ as an alternative to the purchase of a textbook. Many of these publishers include up to four separate 12-month access codes with each purchase. Many states have a rental scheme in place, where parents pay a ‘per year’ rental for a textbook. Victoria, however, has for years required parents to purchase textbooks upfront as this provides the schools with an opportunity to sell second hand books as a major fund raiser at the end of each year. In these situations, booksellers usually receive a 30 per  cent bulk handling fee for providing a booklist supply service to schools. This point is made only to highlight the fact that perhaps not all people will see the use of electronic text books as being positive.

Anecdotally, Victorian schools change textbooks every three years and Queensland and New South Whales change every four or five years. Low fee parish schools hold on to books even longer. The smaller states do not get their own ‘badged’ textbooks. HSC and VCE are the largest markets. SACE and TCE ‘make do’ with adapted materials from other states as the print runs are not economically viable for the four main publishers. Is this really in the best interests of the students?

Recently some publishers have begun to offer custom books, where schools can request certain chapters which will be bound as a one-off custom book for that school. However, there is a minimum print run for this service.

The Status Quo Is Always Under Threat

Google docs, Evernote, Dropbox as well as the widely touted Wikis and blogs are being increasingly employed to encourage students to record their understanding with regard to lessons as well as their stages of development. In many instances, students can create volumes of material online, in school and after hours, which in turn requires many teachers to grapple with the 24/7 expectation to respond to student submissions and enquiries.

LMS or Learning Management Systems attempt to provide a structure for all this new information and organise a ‘portal’ for students to access the information at school. The portal is a first port of call for all their school information. Daily school updates are sent directly to students concerned: Timetable changes, excursions, guest speakers, homework reminders and notices represent just some of the information broadcasted. The technological difference rests in the fact that through the new digital system, information is only communicated those affected by, or interested in the announcement, as opposed to the traditional situation where information was sent to all and sundry. The new portals provide students access to the work schedule for each class and online links to resource materials. Many LMS’ also feature a monitoring function where parents are informed of the homework and due dates, as well as whether or not the assignment had been submitted.

Several advanced technology schools have established Virtual Learning Environments (VLE). These VLE’s provide all learning materials, monitoring reporting, discussion forums and student portfolios. The features of these VLE’s are very desirable. However, cost and reliability remain the key concerns. Ultranet in Victoria has a fine feature set. However, reliability and access speed remain a major problem. Google docs have 99.99% uptime, cost nothing and can be rebadged with a xxxx.vic.edu.au domain name. All student logins are securely managed and have access to the entire Google ecosystem. It also works with iPad, while Ultranet still has some issues.

Online textbook resources can be fitted into this scenario, usually as a link through the portal. Access to these resources is via individual student login codes which sometimes require a teacher/school enabling code.

As is evident from this article, the humble text book has come a long way in the last decade. The question that now needs to be answered is how teachers and educators can benefit from these changes. In the next edition of Education Technology Solutions, we will continue our discussion on the evolution of the textbook by taking a closer look at Apple’s iBooks and how teachers stand to benefit both technologically and practically, by implementing them in the classroom.

Gary Bass is an Apple Distinguished Educator 2011 and Learning Leader – Science at Macleod P-12 College in Melbourne.He uses iPads everyday with middle school students using Doceri and Airplay on AppleTV to dramatically remove the need for paper handouts. Also co-author of the Nelson Cengage science series “Nelson iScience”, which is specifically designed for iPad and Netbooks using web2.0, as well as embedded quality approaches and thinking tools.

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Education Technology Solutions
Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.

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