Technology Integration for teachers

What are e-books?

Part 1 of a 3 part article on e-books.

In this article I will be looking at what e-books are in their various incarnations.
With the advent of the iPade-books have become a little more main stream. At one time e-books were most often relegated to specialty devices like Sony e-readers and more recently a Kindle or Nook. Most people still don’t know what at e-book is, or the concept of an e-book. Until recently e-books and the creation of e-books has been one of those things that was only accessible to a few. In this article I want to discuss what an e-book is and some of the tools needed to create, publish and read e-books.

The term e-book stands for electronic book. This is a full book in electronic format that can be read on an e-book reading device or with special software that can read the special format of an electronic book. You could say that any document created electronically is an e-book, but there are certain characteristics that make an e-book different from a publication created with a word processor like Microsoft Word. An e-book has a book like feel, complete with bookmarks and is readable in a small portable device instead of with a large bulky computer. An e-book on a reader has a table of contents, footer, references and even an index.

In addition to text an e-book contains additional elements like images, and more recently sound, video and links to web sources or references. E-books started their rough journey in the sixties. Some claim that it started earlier but this is not the point of this article. There was no set format for e-books at that time and several formats existed without cohesion. This made it difficult for authors and publishers to market their publications. In the 1990s the Open Book format was developed to help authors and publishers. This format would create one format that was consistent and would allow both to develop books that could be read on a variety of devices. The format is based on web page code; Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Extensible Markup Language (XML) helps to organize the e-book with a manifest that includes a table of content and reference to media like the book cover art.

The e-book market and readership has been pretty much a sort of underground. This is because until lately the concept of reading and creating electronic books was limited to those with specialized hardware to read the e-books. A bit of skill was required to develop an e-book because of the code requirements. These code requirements made it difficult for most of the public to readily create their own e-books. The worlds of writing and coding often clashed and the e-books often lost. I’m glad to say that this barrier is very quickly disappearing. There is a variety of software out there to help the average author publish his or her book without the requirement of knowing any specialized code. We will look at some of this software in the coming articles.

Devices like the Kindle, Nook and iPad have helped to bring the concept of e-books to the public. In recent years the sale of electronic books has out performed the sale of traditional books. Electronic books tend to be cheaper and are very easy to purchase on all these devices.

E-books have several advantages. Like their physical counterparts they have chapters, sections, table of contents and index. They also have the ability to bookmark pages for later reference. With the software on these e-book readers you can highlight words, sentences and paragraphs. You can also annotate these same paragraphs, sentences and words. You can tap on an unfamiliar word and the e-reader provides a definition and at times a link to a full site definition for a term. These references are often made to Wikipedia. Which is where I got the bulk of my historical information for this article. Apple iPad and iBook reader use proprietary software to deliver a richer experience with sound, video, animation, interactive sections, quizzes and image libraries.

A single device can contain hundreds of e-books. If you lose or break your e-book reader, your purchased e-books can be put back onto a newly purchased e-reader free of charge. All your purchases on devices like Kindle, Nook or iBook are stored for you, and can be retrieved free of charge. Devices like the Kindle and Nook offer the ability to lend out books to others with the same device. They can read the book free of charge for a set time period, and at the end of that time, the person to whom it was lent can choose to purchase their own copy.

Lately e-books have broken ground at the university and college level. Many universities offer students the choice of purchasing their textbooks as e-books. This does not reduce the price of the book, unfortunately, but it does help reduce the weight of those backpacks students often carry about campus. This can be easily done at the university or college level because students must purchase their own e-reader or the price of the e-reader is included in the price of tuition. This is one of the factors that currently limit the integration of e-books at public schools. The current price of e-readers is prohibitive and not all publishers currently provide their texts in e-book format. This is slowly changing and is destined in the long run to save public schools millions of dollars.

As any classroom teacher can attest. Students are brutal with their books. No matter how hard you try, eventually a book is lost, stolen, torn, soaked in water, or marked with ink. These factors contribute to the longevity of a book.

Once we look beyond the physical damages to a book we need to look at the information within the book. Books with missing pages are difficult to deal with, but books with inaccurate or limited information is a greater challenge. Try as they might, publishers are inevitably bound to make mistakes in spelling, grammar and information accuracy. Apart from these is the fact that a book is limited in the number of pages that it can use to convey information. Many university textbooks try to include as much information possible, at the expense of book size and weight. We all remember those heavy textbooks. Once a hard book is printed the information cannot be updated without the need to re-print the book or to print an addendum to the book. This can all be quite costly.

Hard books need to be stored, inventoried, repaired, replaced, distributed and attempts need to be made to recover the cost of a lost or damaged book from parents. Good luck! E-books don’t face these limitations. An e-book cannot be lost, damaged, stolen, torn, marked beyond all use and the information can be easily updated electronically.

E-books cannot be infinite in terms of content but it can provide reference to infinite sources of information on the Internet. I wonder how much longer we will need textbooks? They might be an idea whose boundaries might prove too limiting for teachers of tomorrow. To quote Rod Serling, the Internet “…is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge…”. He actually wasn’t talking about the Internet but the quote seems to fit.

E-books have drawbacks of their own. They require a specialized device or special software on a computer. In turn that device requires a power source. Storage on these devices is not limitless and the latest and greatest is just around the corner. E-books cannot be passed on from generation to generation as treasured mementos. It’s hard to fill your bookshelves in the living room with e-books. Their power requirement makes it difficult to rely on when you are hiking or camping away from a wall socket. They’re hard to autograph when you meet your favorite author at a café in Paris. With all that, I still prefer hard books. They have a sense of permanence and a physical connection to the stories and information. The more I read my e-books the more I want to have the hard copy.

Well, I’ve gone beyond describing an e-book. I didn’t want to get to technical in this article. I will delve a little deeper in the other articles. I have an idea of where we in education are going with e-books, but I do tend to be one of those at the edge of what is emerging in technology. I know one day we will be using e-books in the classroom and I also know one day they will be a thing of the past as we enter the knowledge web. That connection we will all have to everything anyone has ever spoken, written, seen and imagined. Can copyright be a thing of the past as the number of people on the planet increases the number of like minds increases, and the opportunity to have a thought that no one has ever experienced, becomes less and less probable. I know someone out there has had this same thought. Interesting.


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