Understanding ebooks

Ebook or Electronic Book – An electronic version of a printed book; Ebooks hold massive potential for the education sector.

I work at a school where we deployed Apple MacBooks to over 1000 students. Almost 3 years later and students still seem to be carrying heavy bags full of additional text books.

Clearly we need to do more to achieve the ideal, paperless school environment. The transition however, has proven to be complicated and in most instances restrictive due to the multiple formats and sometimes Digital Rights Management (DRM).

Ebooks come in many different formats, the most popular being:

  • PDF – Adobe’s own format – widely used across almost all platforms.
  • AZW – The Amazon proprietary format.
  • MOBI – most PDA’s and smart phones use this format.
  • EPUB – Widely used by almost all formats apart from the Amazon Kindle.
  • IBOOKs – Apple exclusive, new format.

At my school we use Apple technologies. Therefore the following formats are considerations:

Adobe PDF
At present the flexible format of choice is the Adobe PDF. Their format is fine, you can create beautiful page layouts, create complex forms and annotate and collaborate with sticky notes. The Adobe PDF starts to fall short though when you want to add media like audio or video. Your media will be encoded to Flash, rendering the document quite useless for iOS users.

The .ePub format
ePub seemed like a promising choice for a few years. However limitations started to reveal themselves. Ideal document layout was tricky to achieve. I experienced unusual playback of audio objects if you placed too much audio in one document. ePub is still going strong though, it is very flexible because many devices can render the file type.

iBooks Author
The ‘iBooks textbooks’ format is by far the most visually appealing ebook. iBooks take full advantage of the iOS touch screen. The format has countless enhancements including picture slide shows, 3d object manipulation, video playback and interactive glossary to name just a few. After experiencing these books you will never go back. That is if you fully understand the commitment you are making….

As a teacher, school curriculum decision maker, or writing enthusiast which format should you use?

This is a decision which has so many variables only you will know the answer. With many factors to consider, I will share my opinion considering that I would like to achieve maximum accessibility for my colleagues who use a combination of Apple devices. It seems that depending on how media rich you would like your book, dictates the file type you should use.

eBooks guide

“It seems that the more interactive and media rich the book is, the fewer devices will actually render it correctly.”

Microsoft Word, Apple Pages and PDF

If you just need to communicate policies and letters to your students and parents, a quick Word or Pages document exported as a PDF is adequate. It is important that you export your final letter as a PDF. Distributing the actual .doc or .pages is a common mistake unless you require your recipients to further edit your letter. I often draw a comparison to an iMovie or Garageband project, when you’re finished creating you always export a final media file (like an MP3 or MP4 video). You would never actually share the project file itself with your audience, right? Remember this as you create your next word processing ‘project file’.

The exported PDF will beautifully display your pictures and words in a small file which can be opened by almost every computer and tablet device.

.ePubs for enhanced books

As soon as you want to add (or ‘embed’) media such as video or audio you will need to consider your audience and their devices. In my case Apple iPads, iPhones and Macs. The ePub format is extremely popular, it is however mainly consumed on mobile devices. So a few considerations:

Making .ePubs
It is easy to export to this format directly from Pages. Click here to read more about successful export to .ePub. There are many iOS apps which in my opinion are more stable and intuitive to use. Check out ‘Book Creator’ and ‘Creative Book Builder’.

Opening .ePubs on your computer
ePub books display beautifully on all Android and iOS devices. But it is not so simple for desktop or laptop computers. I would recommend you take a look at the following:

iBooks Author and the Apple exclusive .iBooks format

iBooks Author may initially seem like a restrictive choice to consume and create text because you are constrained to Apple technologies. However the format is amazing and it’s squarely aimed at the education sector. To assist cognitive learning there is no better tool. The student retains knowledge by listening, watching, reading, and touching information. This experience holds great promise. If you are in a community of iPad users you must investigate the iBooks textbooks further.

Some important considerations with iBooks:

  1. You can only read ‘enhanced’ iBooks from your iPad. By ‘enhanced’ iBooks I mean iBooks created using iBooks Author.
  2. You can only create iBooks on the latest Mac OS, Lion 10.7 or later.
  • iBooks textbooks are perfect for creating interactive, media rich books.
  • As a study aid there is no better format for illustrating facts in a meaningful way.
  • You can distribute your book internally to your students and colleagues or you may choose to publish it to the iTunes Bookstore. It’s up to you if you want to charge.

Please download my ‘Getting started’ guide  which supplements my ‘Ebooks and iBooks Author for education’ teacher training session.

Download “iBooks guide from iSupport Learning”

as PDF (1.4 MB)


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About Doug Loader

Doug has worked in education for over 5 years. Primarily an audio engineer Doug now works in K12 education and can often be found in class addressing students and teachers in podcasting, movie making, presentation software and web design. Doug was recently acknowledged by Apple as an Apple Distinguished Educator and by Adobe as a Adobe Education Leader. Doug spent 3 years working with Apple Education in the UK developing a number of workshops and honing his presentation skills infront of 100′s of teachers from over 40 top UK universities. Doug also writes a quarterly article for Education Today magazine.

3 Responses to Understanding ebooks

  1. Joy Z says:

    Hi, Doug.

    Many thanks for this very helpful overview of ebook formats. One thing I would like for you to address in a future post is the usability/accessibility of each of these formats – the ways in which each of the formats mentioned enhances and/or restricts usability by people across the wides possible range on individual variability with or without what is frequently referred to as disability.

    This is a critical issue as the world so rapidly “goes digital,” especially as a consideration for those who are selecting digital educational materials for whole groups of students.

    As you dig more deeply into the usability/accessibility of various digital formats, you might be interested in having a look at the PALM Initiative at the web site of the AIM Center at aim.cast.org.

    Again, many thanks for this good beginning to help us understand that ebooks are not, in themselves, a single format.

    • Doug Loader says:

      Hi Joy,

      Thank you for you comment. The PALM initiative at aim.cast.org (and the entire website!) is an amazing wealth of resources, ideas and considerations.

      With this in mind I will certainly look to add another post at Spectronics addressing the usability/accessibility points which you mentioned. It is a vital area of huge importance which I didn’t address at all in my brief post.

      Thanks again, Doug Loader

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