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Revolutionizing textbooks: the iPad and e-textbooks

By Margaret Adolphus


The textbook has traditionally been the purveyor of academic course content, and one of the most interesting applications of the iPad is its ability to display digital textbooks with an ease and clarity never before achieved.

For the last 20 or so years, publishers have given digital a cautious nod by providing a CD stuck to the inside back cover of the textbook.  But text still predominates, and a digital age demands equal use of other media, hence the birth of the born digital text.

However, to fully exploit the capabilities of born digital, a device needs to display both text and multimedia.  A computer can display the latter, but reading the former is difficult, whereas most Kindles cannot display colour, let alone video.

The iPad, combining as it does the features of an e-book reader with those of a laptop, can do both, and is therefore well placed to transform the world of textbook publishing.

This article will look at some of the ways in which the e-textbook (also referred to as the digital, interactive, or multi-touch, textbook), is finally coming of age.

Commercially available e-Textbooks

At a much-hyped event at the New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and proclaiming that education was in their DNA, Apple announced its new educational offerings on January 19 2012.

The first product was a new version of iBooks (iBooks2), which better supports interactivity. (Presumably to draw attention to their touch technology, they refer to e-textbooks as "multi-touch".)

The second was iBooks Author, software which enables creation of interactive books without needing to understand programming (to be discussed later).

IBooks 2 is firmly linked with Apple devices – it only plays on Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod.  Books are download-able from the iBookstore, and appear on a virtual bookshelf.

According to Roger Rosner, Vice President for Productivity Applications, Apple focused on three areas when bringing textbooks to iPad: fast, fluid navigation, beautiful graphics, and a good way of taking notes.

The textbooks it displays are, according to Apple’s description, filled with interactivity and image in the form of diagrams, photos, videos, 3D objects that can be rotated, and more.

You can highlight text and add notes, which are then automatically organized and displayed as study cards.

Apple has partnered with three textbook market leaders – McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt. As of January 2012, the initial focus is on the K12 market, and the textbooks will retail at around $15.

Apple’s venture has been a great success: according to Global Equities Research, within three days of the iBooks launch between 350,000 and 375,000 textbooks, and 90,000 to 110,000 copies of iBooks Author were downloaded (Elmer-DeWitt, 2012).

Student textbooks

There are currently fairly few digital textbooks aimed at the undergraduate market. Nature Publishing Group has taken the lead with its Principles of Biology, developed and trialed with California State University, and released globally in February 2012 (but to be continually updated).

The striking thing about Principles (which is also a template for other science textbooks to follow) is not only that it is an all-singing, all-dancing multimedia born digital textbook with first class graphics, but also that it is designed to be as flexible as possible and fit in with course requirements.

Image: Figure 1

One of the interactive images in Principles of Biology

Organized round nearly 200 modules, each module contains pages which can be tabbed through, with a right-hand margin which includes both a note-taking facility and also links to advanced learning resources in the form of scientific articles from Nature publications.

This structure means that instructors can add their own comments whilst students can take their own notes, and have access to the latest research.

If an instructor adopts Principles, they gain access to a "classroom space" where they can post announcements, have access both to the textbook and to other teaching resources, and keep a record via a gradebook of students’ scores of the textbook’s tests.

(For more information, see

Principles of Biology is device independent: it can be viewed on an iPad or smartphone but is not tied uniquely to Apple. A similar approach (at least as far as platforms are concerned) is taken by the publisher MediaTechnics (, which produces interactive multimedia textbooks for the computer market. 

Judging by the sample book on their website, Computer Concepts 2013 however, the interactivity is limited both in quantity and diversity. There are a few Camtasia-enabled videos, hyperlinks to glossary definitions and to websites, as well as some rather neat interactive graphics embedded in the text.

Image: Figure 2

Video showing an interactive graphic in Computer Concepts 2013
A big plus is the use of explanatory audio, which helps reinforce the lessons of the graphics.

Advantages of e-textbooks

That good quality textbooks that can be displayed on iPads and other devices can promote learning is a no brainer.

There is a well established link between multimedia and learning:

  • learning is more effective when promoted through both verbal and visual media, according to dual coding theory;
  • multimedia allows for interactivity, and for the learner to be tested on what he has learnt in a sort of "conversation" between learner and materials;
  • some systems, such as the cell membrane, are by their nature dynamic, and therefore best suited to a fluid graphic treatment;
  • through exciting graphic and video materials, students become motivated and immersed in the learning, with better results.

See papers from the Fourth IEEE International Workshop on Multimedia Technologies for E-learning (held in San Diego, California in December 2009) in a special issue of Interactive Technology and Smart Education, Volume 3, Issue 7.

In addition, whereas print textbooks are cumbersome to update, e-textbooks can be updated "on the fly", thereby allowing students access to the latest research.

Another significant advantage is weight: physical textbooks are very heavy to cart around, whereas for e-textbooks all you need is your iPad or other device.

One blogger had this to say about reading textbooks on tablets (Wulfhart, 2012):

Receiving instant downloads of the latest research and studies, for example, or exploring interactive 3-D models of the human nervous system, or zooming in to examine Van Gogh’s brushstrokes up close – these are just three of the most basic applications of the e-textbook format.

With the publisher saving on production and distribution costs into the bargain, what’s not to like about the new born-digital textbooks?

One significant disadvantage is that the majority are linked to the iPad, which is still relatively expensive, starting as it does at $399. 

However, a recent study by the Pearson Foundation (Pearson Foundation, 2012) showed a dramatic increase in iPad ownership over the previous year: at 25 per cent of college students, it had tripled over 2011’s seven per cent.

It also revealed that a majority of college and high school students (over 60 per cent) believed that tablets would replace textbooks over the next five years.

This is in marked contrast to their 2011 survey, where students, although clearly valuing tablets (to a greater extent than the Kindle) for educational purposes, showed little interest in digital textbooks (Kiley, 2011).

A case of a market maturing? Maybe, but this should still be seen in a global context. Despite well-advertised poverty, the US is still a relatively wealthy country. Can the iPad be seen as a solution to distance learning in the poorer countries of Africa, for example?

On the other hand, tablet ownership is growing at a considerable rate across emerging economies as it is in the developed world, according to a report by Accenture (2012).

Creating textbooks

Apple’s other revolutionary move in the educational field is to offer (free) software that enabled instructors to own the entire publishing process from development to distribution.

Many instructors have a very personal approach to teaching, and often accumulate a considerable bank of their own teaching material.  Now with IBooks Author, they have software to create attractive digital textbooks.

IBooks Author has a number of set templates, which determine the basic page layout, and into which other media such as photographs and video can be incorporated.

The software has tools for creating charts and tables, as well as a number of widgets for importing media, and for creating animated graphics.

You can create graphics which bring up different views of an object as you mouse over a label and thumbnail, or you ones that zoom over and enlarge different parts of the image. You can also import 3D images, which you can create in Google SketchUp.

Image: Figure 3

Screenshot of iBooks author, showing the templates on offer.

There is little doubt that iBooks Author can make handsome books, but how easy is it to use? You will need to play around with it quite a bit, and there are some good tutorials on You Tube – just put iBooks Author into their search box.

Jeremy Kemp has produced a video explaining how to use the widgets (, based on his book, Kids Love Bugs.

Advice is also available from blogs (Richardson 2012):

  • IBooks Author takes up a lot of screen "real estate", so you will need to work on more than one monitor.
  • The viewing platform for iBooks Author is the iPad, so you will need this plus a connecting cable.  Every time you want to view your changes, you will need to export.
  • If you have an existing "oeuvre", you will find it easier to import one section at a time.

Another similar piece of software is BookonPublish (

BooksonPublish is also template-based, supports multimedia, including "videos, Flash animations, HTML/JavaScript animations, YouTube, narrations, music, and Web links" according to the product’s home page.

It is also device independent, a considerable advantage, as is the ability to import YouTube videos, tricky on iBooks Author.

The drawback is that it is mainly aimed at the corporate market, retailing at $10,000 for an annual licence. If you want to use this software, it’s recommended that you go to a bespoke service, such as DEC Publishing (

Whichever – or whatever – software you choose, despite the developers’ claims, creating material will be time-consuming.

You will need to budget in time for playing around with the software and watching the tutorials, and even then, unless you are exceptionally deft, there may still be a gap between creditable first attempts and something that is ready to publish for an audience.

It’s not for nothing that publishers often have whole teams producing multimedia textbooks.

For all that, one effect of such software is to place in the hands of universities and colleges the possibility of ownership of the means of production and distribution, as well as subject expertise.

Acknowledging that academics are already heavily overstretched, Lowney (2012) recommends that "teaching and materials creation" could be a criteria for promotion and tenure, whilst staff should be given time off from teaching if they are creating eTextbooks.

This raises the interesting possibility of universities banding together in materials creation consortia, as they already do with the purchase of journals.


A few years ago (read more in E-books - Part:3) a pilot study was conducted into students use of e-textbooks, reporting positively on the experience. 

At that time, however, publishers were still seeking a satisfactory financial model for e-textbooks, which they feared would make unacceptable cuts into their margins.

Absence of digitally available material left both students and libraries frustrated, the latter reporting the constant complaint of not enough copies of key texts.

Textbooks on the iPad and other Tablet or mobile devices means that the holy grail of e-books can be reached: e-textbooks, which, with all their other advantages, are available to students any time, any place.


Accenture (2012), "Always On, Always Connected: Finding Growth Opportunities in an Era of Hypermobile Consumers
The 2012 Accenture Consumer Electronics Products and Services Usage Report", available at, accessed March 26th 2012.

Elmer-deWitt, P. (2012), "Apple's iTextbooks: 3 days, 8 titles, 350,000-plus downloads", CNNMoney,  January 23rd, available at, accessed March 26th 2012.

Kiley, K. (2011), "Tablets, Yes; E-Texts, Maybe", Inside Higher Ed, May 25 2011, available at, accessed March 26th 2012.

Lowney, F. (2012), "iBooks Author and the Coming eTextbook Revolution in Higher Education", blog posting January 22nd 2012, available at, accessed March 27th 2012.

Pearson Foundation (2012), "New Survey Finds Dramatic Increase in Tablet Ownership Among College Students and High School Seniors", 14 March 2012, available at, accessed March 26th 2012.

Richardson, J. (2012), "Creating an Interactive iPad Multi-Touch Book with iBooks Author: First Take", blog posting on Success Begins Today, February 3rd 2012, available at, accessed March 27th 2012

Wolfhart, N. (2012), "Apple to change education industry with 'multi-touch' textbooks", blog posting 20/01/2012, SMATOOS, available at, accessed March 26th 2012.