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Will you be joining the eBook club?

While today’s students have wide ranging technology at their fingertips, the electronic book market in schools is still in its infancy. Lee Suckling takes a look at the use and value of eBooks.

“While we’re not ready to pull the plug on libraries just yet, eBooks will become increasingly common and popular in New Zealand as online collections increase their size,” explained Andre Kneepkens, an Information and Communication Specialist Teacher at Maidstone School. “As technology and the ability to read these electronic books improves, it’s only a matter of time.”

What’s an eBook?
An eBook is defined as an electronic version of a text that can be read on a standard computer or laptop, mobile device, such as the iPhone, iPod Touch or a PDA, or on dedicated eBook hardware known as an ‘eReader’ – like the Sony Reader or Amazon Kindle. A universally used format is still under debate, however ePub – a free and open format for ‘reflowable’ content, which enables the display of text to be optimised for a particular display device – is currently the most likely contender to rise to the top.

Are eBooks used by New Zealand schools?
Since the Internet came to classrooms more than a decade ago, teachers have had access to electronic educational resources. However, eBooks in the form of either textbooks or literature still have very limited use.

“Not many [teachers] are aware of the potentials, and there’s not a lot of choice out there,” said Kneepkens. “The readily available content is not always useful or high in academic quality. Teachers do come across good material relevant to their curriculum, but it can be very hit and miss – around 80 per cent of educational eBook content is aimed at the American market.”

Some teachers in New Zealand have started using eBooks for professional development, but very few are using them as student resources in the classroom. “It’s not because the technology isn’t there, it’s because the idea of eBooks hasn’t yet been sold to teachers,” added Kneepkens.

What are the benefits of eBooks in education?
The benefits of eBooks for students and teachers are numerous. eBooks are resourceful for in-class teaching, commonly being used overseas in conjunction with interactive whiteboards, so the content of the books can be manipulated. At the student end of the spectrum, eBook technology allows for highlighting and annotating of content, exceptional search and retrieval capabilities, and live hyperlinking can be utilised for referencing.

Students can not only read texts but also make notes and even change the books – facilitating their composition, writing and editing skills. Furthermore, interactive exercises with the text can increase student engagement and deepen their understanding of subject matter. Not to mention the physical benefits to their posture – when the need for backpacks full of heavy books is made redundant.

How realistic are digital libraries?
While a school in the US recently threw out its library of 20,000 physical books to make way for a US$500,000 ‘digital learning centre,’ with access to millions of eBooks, the possibly of doing away with bookshelves in New Zealand school libraries is in the far distant future.

“We just don’t have the range of New Zealand-centric texts available, and what we do have is very badly catalogued,” said Kneepkens. “Once online eBook ‘libraries’ sharpen their focus and become user friendly [both in terms of accessibility and quality], things will start to change. But at the moment, you can see why teachers and students aren’t rushing to use them.”

Are eBooks inevitable?
An educational eBook market is emerging in New Zealand, but it will need a lot of support from the Ministry of Education to see it adopted by schools, believes Kneepkens. “However with our current generation of kids who have grown up with technology, electronic books are a natural progression, and I hope that it won’t be too long before we have class sets of eReaders.”

Martin Taylor, Director of the Digital Publishing Forum believes that while free resources are sometimes used in New Zealand schools, the current market for copyrighted academic content is minuscule in our country. Taylor has intentions to change that; he’s leading initiatives to offer thousands of New Zealand literature titles, and later other resources, to schools and the wider public.

“As it’s an evolving technology landscape, we are very much in the early stages,” he said. “Once we create a dialogue at both government and school level on the best formats and ways to distribute eBooks, we’ll be on our way.”

LEE SUCKLING WRITES FOR INTERFACE MAGAZINE.

© INTERFACE Magazine, November 2009

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Categories: Article, Issue 20