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TOOLS FOR LEARNING: E Is for Explosion: E-Readers, Etextbooks, Econtent, Elearning, E-Everything

By Victor Rivero - Posted Jul 1, 2010
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Social media and learning technology have been hot for some time now, but with the sudden proliferation of ebooks, e-readers, etextbooks, and interactive digital content, technology in education is approaching its flash point.

In case you weren’t feeling it, welcome to the revolution! By the end of 2010, Gen Y members will outnumber Baby Boomers, and 96% of this new generation has already joined a social network, according to author and social media pundit Erik Qualman. Radio took 38 years to reach 50 million users, television took 13 years, the internet just 4 years, the iPod only 3—and what about Facebook? The king of social media added 100 million users in less than 9 months.

At the same time, a 2009 U.S. Department of Education study showed online students outperforming their face-to-face counterparts, while 1 in 6 higher education students enrolled in online courses. Also, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 57% of experts agree with the prediction that, enabled by information technologies, the pace of learning in the next decade will increasingly be set by student choices. In 10 years, most students will spend at least part of their “school days” in virtual classes, grouped online with others who share their interests, mastery, and skills.

There’s an explosion happening, but it’s just now starting to spread. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based market research firm Compass Intelligence estimates that technology spending in the U.S. educational market may grow to $61.9 billion by 2013, from $47.6 billion in 2008.

Meanwhile, the publishing world continues to be complemented (or usurped) by new e-reading devices daily. It’s not just Kindle; now there’s Kindle DX, nook, Alex, Kobo, Sony Reader Daily Edition, QUE proReader, iLiad, eDGe, FLEPia, COOL-ER, Story, HP Slate, Copia, and Skiff, among many others—all arriving on the scene within the last few months .

But they’re empty without content, brought to you in part by educational publishers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt K–12, Pearson Education, Kaplan, Prentice Hall, McGraw-Hill, Follett) trying to keep up with the demand of cash-strapped schools looking for cost-reduced textbooks as but one way of grappling with ever-shrinking budgets.

According to a cursory review of Amazon, an average etextbook costs anywhere between 10% and 40% less than a print textbook. Traditional publishers are on it, working with smaller specialty houses (namely ScrollMotion) to ensure their content becomes econtent, knowing that a simple PDF version won’t cut it (read: There’s a big difference between the presentation of A Tale of Two Cities and a biology textbook, for example).

And how does the rock star of gadgets, the iPad, change things? The iPad fallout is just now arriving in classrooms near you. For starters, there’s an app that makes chemistry more student-accessible in 2 minutes than a century of instruction has ever done (see The Elements). And all those publishers aforementioned? They have big plans for the iPad. More on that soon.

Quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Rik Kranenburg, group president of higher education for McGraw-Hill, nailed it—and this goes for K–12 as well: “People have been talking about the impact of technology on education for 25 years. It feels like it’s really going to happen in 2010.”

In fact, it’s already underway. Suddenly, what began decades back as a dream and a vision is now a solid reality. Technological (bandwidth, devices), cultural (tech-native students), and economic factors (desperate schools and desperately innovative companies) have converged to yield the current scene. Not since the advent of Gutenburg’s printing press has there been such radical change to the very core of education—the written word. Nor has a change been this widespread—or rapid.

But really—what do you think? Overhyped? Overwhelmed? Excited? Jaded? Clear your mind for just a few moments—that’s all it may take before technology advances yet again to blow away any possible preconceptions or misconceptions you may have. Remember, behind any great movement there are indeed dedicated, coordinated groups of constructive people with a mission to make things happen. And as seeing is believing, here are some of those innovative companies to watch in the swiftly evolving etextbook, econtent, and digital learning space:

Discovery Education ( A content company at its core, what was once a supplemental resource house has matured into a full-on replacement for basal textbooks, with historic, large-scale adoptions of its content happening in states such as Oregon and set to happen in Florida and Louisiana. Built-in assessments and hordes of interactive, dynamic, engaging, standards-aligned content (not to mention decades of practice) make this company virtually untouchable. Watch for it to appear on any nonproprietary device.

Shmoop ( This isn’t your father’s CliffsNotes. In fact, it’s more than that by far. Promising to make students (mainly high schoolers and college-age) “better lovers” … of literature, history, and life, this “beta” site (it’s been in beta for more than a year now) can stop being humble. It’s a hip, smart, consistently humorous destination that will have you hooked on the humanities—and then some. Teachers are raving. Students are learning. Love of great literature is blossoming. Find it on the iPhone, Kindle, nook, and Sony Reader.

CourseSmart ( With 10,751 titles available in 1,074 course areas and across 117 disciplines, this 3-year-old company is just getting started. Etextbooks save students an average of $67 per book and up to 50% compared to print textbooks, and you’ve just found one of the largest single sources of etextbooks available anywhere. Still prefer breaking in newly cut wood? Budgets will ultimately click with ebook, growth-poised companies such as CourseSmart.

Follett’s CaféScribe ( Books are essentially exchanged ideas. With ebooks residing so close to the social media universe, CaféScribe was bound to happen. Follett, the nation’s largest provider of library materials and library technology to K–12 schools and a leading operator of college bookstores, lets students form virtual study groups, share notes and insights, and other Facebook-y kinds of collaboration.

Zinio ( “Over 100 literary masterpieces, digitized and bound in the finest electronic leather. Click on a book to get started” is how this site introduces readers to its collection of classics, from Pride and Prejudice , Poems of William Blake , and Beowulf to Aristotle’s Ethics and Aesop’s Fables . The classics are free, and, in partnership with McGraw-Hill, hundreds of textbooks are up to 50% off print prices.

CengageBrain ( Formerly iChapters, this site offers textbooks at up to 60% off, etextbooks always 50% off, and “eChapters” are as low as $1.99. It also offers audio versions of texts and an option to rent instead of buy printed texts. But the question remains: “Do they have my book?” It’s worth a browse.

Taylor & Francis ( With 2 centuries worth of experience under its belt, this leading international academic publisher isn’t fading into the back of the library stacks anytime soon. Not with more than 1,000 journals, about 1,800 new titles each year, and a backlist in excess of 20,000 specialist titles. Its ebookstore features “eCompile”—readers can browse and buy individual pages or chapters from various ebooks and merge them to create their own customized e-reference book.

eCampus ( Offering high-speed search options, electronic note-taking capabilities, and online and downloadable versions, this site offers more than 4,000 popular etextbook titles and is adding more every day. Users generally subscribe to an etextbook for 180 days and can add notes to, read, and search the book until their time is up.

Wikibooks ( A project of Wikimedia, this “open-content textbooks collection that anyone can edit” currently has 2,463 academic textbooks with 34,753 pages—even Wikipedia started with a single page. From humanities to math, science, languages, and more, the tagline here is, “Open books for an open world.” Judging from Wikipedia’s size and scope, imagine what this site will look like next year—or even next month. Meanwhile, check out its book creator.

OverDrive ( A leading distributor of ebooks, the company has been around since the heyday of CD-ROMs, but much has changed, and so has OverDrive. Its School Download Library provides K–12 ebook and audiobook downloads, serves more than 8,500 public libraries, and offers free trials. Like other companies, it offers ebooks for iPads, Sony Readers, PDAs, smartphones, and other platforms and devices.

Copia ( The first social e-reading experience “designed so you can discover, connect and share what’s meaningful,” this company isn’t just changing the format—it’s “rewriting the whole reading experience,” as it claims. Judge for yourself, but Copia’s on to something. It offers conversations, notes, and friends all in an attractive environment, plus good-looking e-reader devices with trendy names such as Ocean and Tidal.

Complete Curriculum ( This etextbook provider offers teachers a web-based instructional interface with curriculum supplements, daily lessons, and a publishing platform to help meet rigorous academic standards. Developed by teachers, academics, and editors, it offers complete digital textbooks with an academic year’s worth of content and activities, including an extensive teacher’s manual, for less than $35.

There’s certainly more where that came from. Technology in education is really approaching its flash point. We’ve never had such an opportunity as we do now to transform learning. In the end, however, it won’t be the clever devices or flashy interactive content that matters, but our own cleverness and mindfulness of the ideas we pose and share that lend real meaning to it all. With that, a very warm welcome to an explosive new era of elearning. Good luck!

Victor Rivero is a contributing writer for MultiMedia & Internet@Schools . He is based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Reach him by email at


‘The First Completely Interactive Textbook Site’

Macmillan has a new imprint: DynamicBooks (, an interactive digital textbook platform on which educators and authors can actually create personalized textbooks using a combination of their own and Macmillan-developed content. Authoring tools allow them to edit their own stuff and then present it to the world—or at least to their class. Purchase the digital content for roughly one-third the cost of print texts; it brings content alive, saves money, and “creates new opportunities for authors to bring their work to market quickly while incorporating rich content and interactive capabilities to enhance learning.” Sure, Macmillan is “leading the way to where textbooks are going next”—but seriously, might it also be putting its parent company out of business?


The Monster at the End of This Ebook

Is Sesame Street’s lovable, furry old Grover still lovable in ebook form? He begs readers not to turn the page (as in The Monster at the End of This Book ), but press Play and the pages turn themselves—an undeniably entertaining experience, what with Grover’s famous, gravelly voice and the yellow autohighlights that move along over the text as cues for the early reader. There are also springlike sound effects, bells, whistles, boings, and bursts of music. Sesame Street wants to know: Is this the end of the book as we know it? Enjoy it yourself at

Goodbye Flat PDFs, Hello Interactivity

From New York-based startup ScrollMotion (, there’s more interactivity to come. Most of the major players in the educational publishing arena (Kaplan, Pearson Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt K–12, McGraw-Hill) have not missed the fact that last year, this young company proved it knows how to work an iPhone app. That’s why it’s jumping on the iPad wagon this year, inking deals to create interactive texts that will do the following:

• Play embedded videos

• Record lectures linked to chapters

• Offer digitally interactive self-assessment tests

• Provide annotation capabilities and live glossaries highlighting words of interest

• Pose interactive charts, graphs, equations, and sentences for study and engagement

This all will basically stretch the boundaries of what we now call “reading a book” into something more like what we might soon describe as “an interactive, touchscreen viewing experience.”

Skiff Magic

Do you ever wonder about that tech magic you saw in some of the Harry Potter movies? For example, the map with real-time footprints? The book that writes itself? How about the electronic newspapers with their ever-moving photos and headlines? Imaginative, yes. Fiction, not quite. Have a look at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Skiff (, an e-reading, advertising, and digital media company that produces the Skiff Reader, an oversized yet sleek e-paper, nonglass, touchscreen display unit with four times as many pixels as most e-readers. It’s real, alright. The site does use a lot of future tense though: The Skiff “will” help publishers embrace the fast-growing world of e-reading and the Skiff store “will” offer consumers a rich selection of newspapers, magazines, books, and blogs. But with a pedigreed executive team and world-class partners, some real dollars are sure to come. Imagine the educational possibilities.

Ebook vs. Printed Book


Availability. More than 2 million free books are available for download as of August 2009.

Portability, storage. E-readers potentially contain thousands of books.

Language access. Translations are broadly available.

Readability. Low light? Total darkness? It may not matter as the book may light itself in addition to providing changeable fonts for reader comfort.

Costs. Initial cost is greater, but e-readers quickly make up for it with very inexpensive books. And don’t forget—fiction books published prior to 1900 are in the public domain.

Security. If damaged, backup and recovery is an option.

Distribution. Ebooks are less expensive and easier for self-publishing authors; they also enable instant delivery.

Green. Ebooks use no paper and no ink. Three times more raw materials and 78 times more water are used in the production of a single printed book, of which users may have an entire library’s worth.


Changing technology. Formats, file types, proprietary limitations, and unreliable PDF and epublishing standards are all issues.

Availability. Not all books are available as ebooks—yet.

Aesthetics. A single book is an authentically crafted, wrap-worthy gift; a single ebook is an electronic nontangible.

Power, shelf-life, durability. Books don’t turn off, get lost in cyberspace, or break when they get stepped on.

Artistry/author’s vision. Screens are for rapid grazing and fast reading, and they may be less pleasurable. A printed work conveys quality. An author may be aware of this when he or she writes, putting more into the work from its inception.

Costs. E-readers far exceed the costs of a single book; some ebooks are nearly the same price as their print counterparts. Initial payout renders the ebook cost-prohibitive to the majority of the world. Plus, there’s no used ebook market.

Security. E-readers are an easy target for thieves, and then your whole library is gone.

Limitations. Screen resolutions, unusable formats, glare, and difficulty holding the device can all pose problems.

Digital rights management, piracy. Resale or loaning is illegal; some authors and publishers are thus resistant to ebooks.

Not so green. They’re toxic, nonbiodegradeable, and contain batteries.

Source: Wikipedia

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