The Challenge of ebooks: Workshop one

Yesterday I was in London for the first workshop towards the new JISC funded project The challenge of eBooks in academic institutions run by Ken Chad. The two hour session gathered a range of stakeholders to discover what the priorities are for institutions around the creation, curation and consumption of digital books. Here are my notes on the workshop:

  • There are major accessibility issues with current ebooks from publishers who aren’t building accessible ebooks from the start. Retrofitting accessibility is costing the sector vast sums of time and therefore money.
  • Issue – how to support remote access to resources and staff 24/7
  • Issue – publishers are often public companies and only concerned with share price so unless they see “growth areas” things won’t change.
  • The future is for either very small collaborations and projects or very large. The medium ground is tough
  • We need a collection of real use-cases. For example, there is a need for ebooks that once on a reader device can be read without the need for “checking-in – feature of some DRM tools” as the reader may not always be online (mobility can have its challenges) or “I want to see all my groups notes from this reading”
  • There is a need to definite the entire system we are talking about, I suggested Craig Mod’s Post-artifact system as a starting point
  • A series of “myth busters” is needed, hat-tip to Amber Thomas
  • Innovation and disruption are needed asap and this won’t likely come from most publishers anytime soon
  • We need to make sure we focus on the goal of using digital technologies to help teaching, learning and research. What are the unique selling points of digital books that we should be using e.g. social features such as highlighting and note sharing for learning purposes
  • A more detailed report of the workshop was made by Phil Barker from JISC Cetis

01 Why bother with ebooks?

Mobile everything has been much hyped over the past few years with figures of device ownership and network activity usage both up, up and away. Within the mobile space, one topic t intrigues me more than others, which is the idea of the digital book, made possible by ebook readers, tablets, computers and software. The NMC Horizon report, an annual look at what’s hot in education and technology has been waving the flag for ebooks since 2010  saying that by 2012 ebooks should be beginning to hit their stride and gaining widespread use. I think they might just be right.

The current digital book is largely relegated to hastily cobbled together editions of existing print books wrapped in an often poorly built PDF file. I can live with this, knowing that there must be light at the end of the tunnel (hopefully not a train) as duplicating print books has been tried, and now we have begun to look at that is next. Whilst I do believe that benefits such as having access to a library at my fingertips, fast searching and 24/7 distribution are great features, those alone are only scratching at the surface of what a digital book could be.

In Post-Artifact Books and Publishing Craig Mod writes:

  • The way books are written has changed.
  • The canvas for books has changed.
  • The post-published life of a book has changed.

Suddenly these three sentences thrust what digital books are becoming into the light. I feel it is worth considering each in context of education.

The way books are written has changed.

The process used to be be of isolation with author> select reviewers > Publisher > seller. Martin Weller’s 2011 book The Digital Scholar came into being in part from his public blog writing on many of the thoughts and topics that went on to become the book. The comments and statistics could have been one method of seeing what “sticks” to inform the book process. Which was then further honed by his tribe using various social tools.

Over the past year or so I have been following with interest as Gráinne Conole writes Designing for learning in an open world, sharing each chapter of it, using the web to “…act as a space to invite discussion and debate on emergent issues. ”

We are able to use ‘digital’ tools and communications to reach those at whom the book is aimed from day zero. Services like Kickstarter have enabled people to float an idea for a book and get the funding BEFORE day 1.

The canvas for books has changed.

We now have a countless number of ways to read digital books. From dedicated hardware such as the Amazon Kindle, to tablets such as the Apple iPad, Google Nexus 7 and more mainstream computers and mobile phones with book reading capabilities. These devices along with ‘apps’ let us read on a digital book on a new type of canvas from print.

My current favourite reader is the ibis reader which allows me to upload EPUB books and access them on all my devices and sync the page I am reading so i can effortlessly move from one reading device to the next. At the 2012 Digital Book conference, Liz Daly, creator of ibis reader spoke about the possibility of streaming books becoming a possible future (spotify for ebooks), helping us become file format and device agnostic.

I can imagine a near future where education book release will be “digital by default”, saving print for core texts.

The post-published life of a book has changed.

A digital book never has to be complete, like Wikipedia, edits can be made and released with ease. New versions being released as “dot” versions much like how software upgrades are done. Being digital, the book may be discovered by a far greater amount of people, and will be easily distributed via established library catalogues and newer services like Apple iTunes U. Services like Amazon allow you to publicly share your ebook reading lists and highlights,  suddenly these unique digital social features might start to find usefulness for education books. Teacher and learner sharing notes on the same books, this opens the door to potential new pedagogical exploration.

I am now reading as many digital books as I am print books and I continue to marvel at the idea of what is coming next.

The research behaviour of Generation Y doctoral students

JISC have released the results of a 3 year study into my generation (Y) research studying behaviour.

Our research findings reveal:

  • Doctoral students are increasingly reliant on secondary research resources (eg journal articles, books), moving away from primary materials (eg primary archival material and large datasets).
  • Access to relevant resources is a major constraint for doctoral students’ progress. Authentication access and licence limitations to subscription-based resources, such as e-journals, are particularly problematic.
  • Open access and copyright appear to be a source of confusion for Generation Y doctoral students, rather than encouraging innovation and collaborative research.
  • This generation of doctoral students operate in an environment where their research behaviour does not use the full potential of innovative technology.
  • Doctoral students are insufficiently trained or informed to be able to fully embrace the latest opportunities in the digital information environment.

These findings raise important questions about research development, training and support within research led organisations and the openness and sharing of research.

I say WHY are things the way they are.

Read the study.

Directory of ebook resources in education

My search for articles, presentations, recordings, books etc on the all topics around ebooks and digital publishing has been frustrating. To help me collate my findings and hopefully support others I have created a Google Document listing all found items. The document can be viewed and edited by anybody so please do help me build this into something of value:

Ebooks and digital publishing in Education and research, Google Document


Print books better than ebooks for learning?

Tony Bates points to some new work from the University of Leicester that suggests physical books may be better for deep learning:

This excellent article looks at research done at the University of Leicester, and also draws on experience from a number of people, that suggests that ‘physical books are best when you want to study complex ideas and concepts that you wish to integrate deeply into your memory……This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for e-text books or computerized courseware, however. Different media have different strengths.’

Check it out for yourself  Do we learn less from e-books?

I have been scooping up ebooks to learning web design related topics very happily, and I don’t make notes in the margins of print books either. Tony comments that some of the problem may be the ‘experience’ of the devices we read on.

I will keep an eye on this.

Uses for ebooks

Despite having been around for years, ebooks are still very underutalised in education. There are two types of ebook to consider. Firstly, those books made available from the publishers and other writers. Secondly, self-published books that you produce yourself. I am not sure how much we can shape the path that the academic publishers are on at present so will focus on self-publishing of digital books.

There are plenty of uses for print books in education and currently the main driver for education ebooks is to replicate existing print books in digital form.

For the most part this means simply scanning print books and using Adobe PDF as the ebook file format. The scans are often of poor quality and do not take advantage of the power features of the format.

This underlying theme will continue but the most exciting area will be finding new uses for books that take advantage of what being digital can offer.

Why now?

The growth of commercial ebooks led largely by the ease with which we can now distribute and view ebooks on our mobile devices (laptops, phones and dedicated readers) has shone a light on applications for education.

There hasn’t been much recent research on producing digital books for eduction so I hope posts like this and the work JISC will be doing this year will contribute to the start of something bigger.

ebooks can be accessed and read  across multiple  platforms:

  • There are dedicated ebook readers (to remain niche?)
  • Mobile phones
  • Computers and tablets
  • Printed out

Uses for digital books

  1. Text books (ebooks textbooks)
  2. Course supplement
  3. Promotional books e.g. prospectus
  4. Course handbooks
  5. Workbooks
  6. Reading lists
  7. Reference book
  8. Monograph
  9. Research e.g. journals
  10. Collecting themed work e.g. blog posts

In a future post I will explore the unique opportunities that digital books can offer.


JISC – Digital monogragh technical landscape study

JISC Digital Media – Introduction to ebooks

JISC Digital Media – Getting started with ebooks

Craig Mod – Post-artifact books and publishing


Understanding user-centred design workshop

Stu Church from Pure Usability ran a full day workshop talking and demonstrating the benefits of a user-centred approach to JISC funded projects. Here are my notes:

  • Project issues include the need to address user-centred design for searching, showing resources and supporting user-contributions to collections.
  • A user-centred process is the key to success and can be applied at all stages of a project (never too late to start!)
  • Benefits include improved credibility, reputation, visits and user happiness
  • ISO 9241-210 – Human-centred design for for interactive systems
  • Key elements include user goals & needs, user research and evaluation
  • Start with your business goals and then see what you can do to make the user experience as great as it can be
  • Have a snappy sentence that you can always refer to about the ‘UX vision’, a great recent example from Mark Boulton ‘A make new mantra: A statement of design intent‘ which for CERN is to “create wonder”
  • Identify user requirements and user stories
  • Rapidly design, prototype an refine
  • Evaluate to get insights and measure performance
  • You can do loads yourself without a professional to get quite far – then get pro’s for the harder pinch-points
  • So what are you waiting for?!