Opening the book

Digital technology is transforming the textbook

Jacqui Griffiths
17 May 2015

3 min read

In classrooms around the world, digital technology is transforming textbooks with dynamic, interactive content that can reach out and engage learners. As these “eTextbooks” also are cost efficient, educators and publishers are teaming up with technology providers to produce more engaging, media-enriched material.

By 2018, eBooks will represent 14% of the total global revenue from educational books, according to a report by multinational professional services network PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers). This might seem like a humble figure, but it’s double the share educational eBooks represented in 2013. Although growth is hampered by educators’ dependence on tight government budgets, which do not allow for new textbook purchases every year, this evolving format is well supported by publishers, especially in higher education.

“We are seeing a gradual increase in eTextbook usage among students,” said Linda Dunbar, director of corporate public relations at Wiley, a major textbook publisher headquartered in Hoboken, New Jersey. “Generally, students who use an eTextbook once are more likely to use one again because they’ve had a positive user experience.” Charlie Pearson, development manager at UK educational publisher Pearson Publishing, sees steady growth ahead. “Our ‘nimbl’ advanced mobile publishing platform is generating a lot of interest in schools,” he said. “It will take time to translate into big sales, but we expect demand to pick up, starting with the 17-18 year olds, who are more independent learners.”


eTextbooks extend the traditional book to include a flexible repository of resources and media, plus progress tracking and instant feedback capabilities. “The long-term transformation is not books going online,” Mary Skafidas told Scholastic Administr@tor magazine when she was working as a marketing executive at New York-based publisher McGraw-Hill Education. “It’s the creation of different tools, a step beyond digital prose.”

French publisher Hachette’s “Technique” collection took that step by partnering with educational technology experts to create 3D animations for a digital version of a technology handbook used in French high schools. Animations enable students to observe, manipulate and deconstruct technical 3D models, while French and English voiceovers build language skills.

“These animations integrate well with a combined approach of hands-on experiments, lectures and lab sessions,” said Sylvain Grenaille, who teaches technology at Viollet-le-Duc High School in Villiers-Saint-Frédéric, France, one of the schools that tested Hachette’s eTextbook. “Students like to study digital technologies that they’ll use more thoroughly later on. The class using 3D animations was more efficient since students were more interested in what they were doing.”


By 2018, eBooks will represent 14% of the global revenue from educational books, according to PwC.


As students bring their work home, successful eTextbooks must provide rich interactive content on a wide range of devices. Ewan Campbell, a teacher trainer working for the British Council’s Pre-ELT (English Language Teaching) project in Malaysia, delivers courses that combine face-to-face learning using paper textbooks with homework on digital platforms. “The big challenge with digital books is how to display content on different devices,” he said. “Here in Malaysia, most trainee teachers have smartphones and few have laptops, so digital resources must work on the devices available to them.”

Forward-thinking publishers are focused on that challenge. “We are creating content to look good on all screens,” Pearson said. “The markup language for eTextbooks must be richer because the content is required to do more.”


Looking ahead, eTextbooks promise a broad spectrum of innovative and engaging resources. The publishers’ goal is to make them increasingly sophisticated and interactive. “eTextbooks will evolve over time so that there is a higher level of interactivity, even for a standard offering,” Wiley’s Dunbar said. “This will come about initially as publishers progressively move their content into more dynamic, reflowable formats. A range of offers will emerge, from standard text on a device to an adaptive, integrated learning platform with a wide range of enhancements.”



These versatile resources could generate new business models, enabling more people to access the educational materials they need. In several US states, for example, educators and administrators are abandoning costly paper textbooks and using platforms such as Wikispaces for Teachers, Netvibes, Moodle and Edmodo to create their own eTextbooks. Wiley’s eTextbooks can be purchased or rented, and educators can select the content they need to create customized textbooks in the format of their choice.

In a recent blog for EduTech, Michael Trucano, senior information and communication technology and education policy specialist at the World Bank, suggested that learners in developing countries could buy eTextbook chapters as needed, much as consumer-goods companies sell affordable, one-load packets of laundry detergent.

As eTextbooks gain traction, they will continue to evolve through partnerships with publishing, education, media and technology providers. These interactive resources promise compelling experiences for a broad spectrum of learners, with plenty of new chapters ahead.

Learn about the 3D extended eTextbook:

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