The Impact (or not) of E-Books

An IET Tech Coffee Morning on eBooks, with a panel discussion: Giles Clark (co-publishing guru), Agnes Kukulska-Hulme (learning tech prof), Keren Mills (exciting innovation honcho in the Library), Rhodri Thomas (Learning Innovation genius), Claire Grace (head of licensing and content in the Library), Gerald Schmidt (development adviser expert in LTS).

Giles chairs and introduces a glittering array of OU experts. (Liz Mallet can’t make it. )


Yesterday a bit of ‘not’: HP’s survey of digital media in UK, including youngsters, 95% respondents still prefer physical printed books over ebooks. Evolutionary path. This probably is the moment. Commercial publishers are investing – late in the day – in to ebook programmes. See it as a major threat – lower prices, US market is 2-3y ahead. Amazon 90%+ market share, Apple coming in. Fiction facing downward pressure on pricing, upward pressure on author royalties. And increase in authors becoming publishers, facilitated by Amazon.

Different segments: big buzz is in trade market, particularly US. Mobile interest in far East – Japan, South Korea, especially in public transport, short form romantic stories. In academic book market, monographs, mostly sold to libraries, merging with journal collections since they’re research, moving to electronic usage; ebooks – container, or chapters from sources. Textbooks – big publishers, Pearson, McGraw Hill – don’t go in libraries; publishers worried they’ll sell one copy to one student instead of $1m a year – they are vast. Content to service switch to respond; Pearson building websites to accompany books; ebook is free, but moved towards Pearson services and support packages. Are University VLEs becoming switches in to large publishers? A potential concern.

Digital Rights Management – we all hate it, publishers think they are using it. DRM is almost completely useless. Giles’ book is protected nominally, but is widely available in pirated form. Cambridge UP are abandoning DRM, Taylor & Francis considering it.

How important will the mobile market be? Many developments – hand over to international expert …


Mobile learning very much the future. Much work in IET within new Next Generation Distance Learning Programme. When mobility and ebooks come together the whole thing makes more sense.

Her research mainly in area of learner practices – how learners use their personal devices (phones, MP3 players, etc) to support their learning. For many years. Many OU and other learners get huge benefits. For some learners ebooks are a great thing.

Is there a change in learning habits and interests as a result? Interesting question.

History of work here, early usability type tests. Sent students PDAs with course materials on. Found many students delighted at flexibility, but for others was no good at all. Much has changed, and iPad on the horizon.

Piece by James Clay from Gloucestershire – thinks iPad is the future, changes everything. It doesn’t matter what educators think, real decision will be made by the learners.

Recent article in Computers and Education – ebooks or textbooks – research findings show students prefer textbooks. Asked psychology undergraduates, asked them based on their previous experience of ebooks whether they preferred textbooks. Didn’t find any other benefits – but was limited study. They concluded students had an aversion to ebooks. But mobility didn’t come in to it.

Her research, on people reading ebooks or academic papers on small-form-factor mobile devices. Found differences depending on which country students were from. In Hong Kong, 43% students read like this once a week or more, vs 10% in the UK. Cultural differences, possibly devices different too, costs. Academic papers – 35% do read a week or more; UK OU students, 21%.

Would people read more in a foreign language if easier? Across EU, only 10% read foreign language news or books. Stanza on iPhone – was good to get Madame Bovary, and a dictionary – but can’t switch back and forth easily from the dictionary.

Tim (Maths/Stats): Many OU apps are Flash or Java, not supported by iPad – any views?

Rhodri: Will come back to later.

Robin Stenham: Not clear about student learning. A book you can bookmark, highlight, return to. Any work on the nature of learning that can go on with e.g. MP3 files, ebooks – do they study same way as from books?

Agnes: More research required.

Claire (Library): The issue is chicken-and-egg. Publishers see sales unit as a textbook, everything is locked away in the box. All we do is still based on that model. Need to persuade publishers to concentrate less on the unit of sale and more on the potential unlocked. Trials underway. Put ebook content alongside journal content and see how it’s used – discoverable, searchable, linkable at chapter or section level. Do we have a requirement for textbooks? Probably not at the OU. JISC work is all around releasing textbooks, is the wrong unit.

Robin: Our model is sticking print in to places. Should think more about producing for the media rather than just redirecting print to other media. We are a publisher – shouldn’t we be evolving our method in to the new technology rather than misappropriating it?


Runs the Digilab, many devices there. Study with Cranfield, handed out Sony eBook Readers and iPod touches to 12 students. Interesting results. Previous experience of ebooks – look like Marmite – either looked a bit and rejected, or really read a lot. Highlighted that people interact with ebooks very differently. Many didn’t find it suitable for their way of studying – e.g. spreading several books in front of them and sticking notes in, studying from many at a time. The devices just don’t allow that. We do need to consider the functionality. Library Helpdesk get lots of requests for audio versions of course books – not just from students with disabilities but from students who just prefer it that way.

Ebook readers – report from US – brain scans when reading from those. Conclusion that not good to read before going to sleep because screen too stimulating. Maybe this is a reason to encourage ebook reader use – stimulating, might take more in!

Battery life a recurrent issue. Refresh rate painfully slow for turning a page. Will improve over time.

iPod touch users liked the colour versus the e-ink; backlight preferred. (small study though). Many Digilab visitors make the same comment – nice to look at once it’s loaded, but the overall experience is too frustrating. Some like them, but the tech is still too new for the devices to be really useful.

Mary Taylor: Has Sony eBook reader, for a year, uses for fiction. If use a lot, get a technique where you press next page while you’re still reading the last paragraph – like a book, you forget the platform. Takes practice. Can use it outdoors too, big plus. Also has a Kindle, refresh rate much quicker.

Keren: Kindle refresh rate is good. Connectivity is big benefit, but is not half so good on the international version.

Mary: Put OU PDFs on it, no problem, via the free convert-to-Kindle service.

Richard: Could you load more than one PDF/ebook on to the reader and swap? Is that a processor thing, would be better?

Keren: It’s a navigation thing. For all devices/apps – can’t have multiple books/files open at the same time. Not like multiple windows on a computer, have to close one then open the next.

Claire: Proves point that students aren’t reading books cover-to-cover. That’s something different to a traditional book. Students buy books because they have to. Model could change because technology allows it. Searching, finding, collating – so many more opportunities now. Don’t fixate on the e-book that meets publishers’, not students’ needs. Also economics – students under pressure to buy what they can ill afford, look to library, but library can’t do all of that too. Some big publishers are exploring – Spring, Elsevier, possible Taylor and Francis. Want us to maintain spend with them, but looking at what we can get in addition. Most universities are stopping spend on print books to deal with financial pressure.

Shailey Minocha(?): What is an ebook at the OU? Is it a textbook? Or a block/unit of 10-12 pages. Would differ. We are focusing on technology here, should be on what the purpose of the access is. When at home or office, would prefer access on computer, when travelling, on mobile. Can’t force students to a particular technology, must be a multiplatform strategy.

Rhodri: Two themes. Irrespective of the technology, benefit is portability. Move away from large devices. Whether ebook reader or your phone doesn’t matter; people realising they can engage in different ways. More mainstream than ebook reader niche group. Secondly, students feeding back that they want three books open – depends on the activity. If e.g. synthesising for assessment, yes. But they may just want a quick overview while out and about and have a free few minutes. Should respond to students rather than us telling them.

Roger Moore: Some OU courses ask for chunking of ebooks. So not print-form units, but driven by calendar view the VLE gives courses. Many different screen sizes, from phone to Kindle and up. Fiction is different, you tend not to return, read in a single stream. But course material may need to go forwards and back, re-read, study. So not just multiple documents, but enough on screen at a time to synthesise learning from even a single document.

Paul Clark: Haven’t used any of these devices. Can a Kindle deal with diagrams, photographs? Textbooks often visually rich. Digital paper, readability in sunlight, has that turned up?

Keren: Kindle does do photos, fairly well, but only in black and white. Many devices will handle diagrams if inserted to the file correctly. But can be done wrongly so they’re so small you can’t read them; depends on how it was produced. Are always limited by the screen size. Some prototypes of digital paper at CES this year – A4 slice of e-ink screen, flexible with a chunk at the side for battery and buttons. Been coming for years. Is getting closer to market.

Rhodri: May not be e-ink, may be OLEDs or some other technology.


We are taking book production and sending it to other technology. May be iPad, or HP offer may be good. Or capable Android tablets. Key is not to think about serving all of them. We need to use open standards wherever possible. iPad uses dominant standard – our ebooks will play on those, so just about optimising them.

Open standards, and cross-platform work. Don’t get locked in to a single platform.

Need to keep eye on what things will be very shortly. Right now it’s terrible compared to what their potential will be. So don’t lock in, design so can switch on other features.

Example – can run out an ebook for the iPad right now, ePub format. Can say tables can sort when you tap them. Can shrink/manipulate for the device. Can produce serialised version of it. Already in all of our standard production route. But there isn’t a device that can do all of the features just now! Hardware not there … yet. Want to get their hands on them, soon as possible.

Has HTML5 video in there in ePub … but that (probably) won’t work yet. Flash won’t. But can put links to them. Wants to know when they’re available. We need to be able to simply turn them on or off without manual work. Picked up from standard course materials. The moment a device is released we can do that. Expects first generation iPad will be disappointed – probably won’t e.g. do all the nifty table manipulation.

Diagrams are a real challenge. Tables are hard enough, diagrams a step above. Accessibility challenge too. Get the best we can out of a device. Maths too.

Claire: Accessibility – do portable devices at least mean we don’t have to fight the accessibility battle with publishers?

Gerald: Difference between stuff we buy in versus our production. Kindle navigation is not audio-enabled fully, and very inflexible for navigation. For our own production, ebooks probably not our favourite; his money’s on Word. Be a long time before Word+JAWS is beaten – large tables is fine. DAISY is a contender, which can get you the most accessible format of all, human-read versions.

Mary: Need for ePub documents is a strong model. Some disabled students asking for study in bed lying down, can I use course material on ebook reader I lie down in bed with? So good for them. But not good for blind students, who’d want all-audio (or tactile) interface.

Me: Issue with DRM, especially when bought for a course that was specifically for accessibility, no end of trouble for students with accessibility challenges. (Known as ‘the IET book’ in the Library.)

Giles: We want to integrate content with the VLE.


In early ebook days, he worked with 50 students in South Africa (on TESSA project), spending much time commuting on buses. Wanted learning on the move to reinforce. Versioned from web content, hand-crafted conversion to ebooks. Was fine to do it by hand, iterating, but had difficulty with Activities – if want someone to reflect, think, wait for an answer – answer at the end of the book doesn’t work. Used hyperlinking instead. Not ideal but worked.  Now ebook output from our structured content system – what do you do with the activities – e.g. signposting, links to online activities. Other ways to use rich media to bring content to the device. Many options.

The ePub format has strong backing in the University. Widely used. Does have limitations. We may move out of the ebook and just want access to web pages, where we have lots of interactive stuff. Better than linear/fiction type usage the readers are currently designed around. The highlighting, annotation, bookmarking is very important, and is frequently left out in new systems. Known since the very earliest ebooks that these are important.

Students need to be able to get at the stuff. Majority can’t get at it with simple a ‘click’ link, need to make it very easy. May have to work with third-party applications. Like we do with podcasts. Perhaps download to desktop client, it handles getting it on to multiple devices. Want to make it easy to download and capture it.

Clare: Publishers are far behind us. The IET book – bought through an aggregator, on a one-book-one-copy model, if want 90 students, need 90 copies. Only readable online. Talked to publisher, get them to understand what we wanted. If you buy it in print, you get it in print, if electronically, pay again, usually more than 100%. Need for portability, desktop, integrate it – mind-blowing for company like Taylor and Francis. Fear it could get anywhere. Worked with them extensively, explore where it gets there. If we buy it direct and it’s not a textbook, you can do something with it – but if through an aggregator it’s really hard. Same conversations with publishers for the last eight years or more!

Andrew Brasher: Educating publishers, reasonable goal. What about authors to pick publishers with care?

Claire: Commissioned a study to talk to a few people about ‘the IET book’ – workshop next month. Ebook is an amorphous term – to publisher it’s a unit of sale.

Andrew: Need those outcomes to be publicly accessible. Author of book was not OU staff, will often be the case.

Roger: Model from the past may be relevant – Dickens etc published novels originally in serial form. Science fiction novels some years ago often published in monthly chunks in magazines. Is a model that they’ve used.

Keren: Serialisation very popular like this in Japan.


Disappointed that all the JISC studies have been about textbooks, not about authors working with publishers, or helping them understand new elearning models. A very print-based model. They’re missing a trick not doing more wide studies, and exploring new business models.

Strategically across the OU need to be more cohesive about educating publishers. And our colleagues!

Robin: Research issues also important. Have worked on ebooks since 1995, digital talking ebooks too. Shouldn’t miss a trick about the way particular groups of students have used these for 15 years to do all these things – annotate, highlight, categorise, aggregate etc. Disabled students have been doing these for many years. A shell to do all these things is a huge market gap. Multiple documents. Audio annotations too.

Rhodri: Would be perhaps further in the future. Online to offline, proof of concept work on Android. If we can’t do it, get software publishers to do it.

Giles thanks everyone.

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

2 thoughts on “The Impact (or not) of E-Books”

  1. Thank you to you and Claire for raising accessibility. My colleague and I are looking into this for our disabled students. Colleague is excited by possibility of the iPad and increasing mainstreamness of automatically more accessible formats as print impaired people are massively disabled by the current system.

    We are still manually scanning books for students which is slow, expensive, pointless and often leads to a delay in the student being given appropriate material in a format they can access – which on top of a slower “absorption rate” anyway by nature of say magnification or text to speech means they’re partially pointlessly disadvantaged. Making the mainstream format accessible would solve one of those issues.

    Also good to read about different ways of reading, learning, using books – this may well improve the ‘rate of absorption’ difficulties many of our students face.

    I shall point my colleague at this as well.

  2. Two points strike me:

    “Library Helpdesk get lots of requests for audio versions of course books – not just from students with disabilities but from students who just prefer it that way.”

    We get these in LS too. Now I know this angle from my time as an OU student before working here. What happens is they think they’ll listen to their texts while doing oher things – driving, gardening. In reality because these are often textbooks they end up a meaningless drone in those situations. It works for the audio-book-like lit texts, but even then you often end up reading the text alongside.So the pattern of asking may not reflect pattern of use, is I guess what I’m saying.

    On being made to buy books. This happens early on, but as you progress through OU studies you end up without textbooks. So there’s a real shift in later studies to borrowing monographs from the library, and using journal articles. Now the journal articles OU students use are almost exclusively electronic anyway – look at the library figures. But I can’t decide if this means there should or shouldn’t be a great press to digitize textbooks as opposed to monographs.

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