With the constant influx of new technologies in the digital publishing space, some textbook publishers are innovating new ways to deliver information to students, while others are falling behind. Producing digital textbooks in an attempt to capitalize on a shift to digital platforms is ineffective without utilizing the strengths of the web. With the rise of eBooks starting with the launch of the first Kindle eReader in 2007, publishers were eager to digitize their content and create new revenue streams.[1],[2] We are now past this stage in the evolution of textbook publishing; a digital version of a printed textbook is not a viable option for students. The web offers teaching tools including:

  • personalization and adaptability of course content

  • online interconnectivity and communication, and

  • data capture to track learning success.

In order to keep up with current demands, publishers of higher education textbooks need to implement web-based eLearning practices into their products.[3]

books in school

It’s not enough to use digital technologies for technology sake

eBooks read on eReaders are successful in certain markets such as genre fiction where a repurposing of the printed environment is appropriate, but the native features found on most eReader platforms, such as highlighting and annotating, are not enough to enhance print editions of textbooks. Robert Harington believes, “The idea is not to compete with the reading experience of a print layout, instead focusing on the strengths of the Web, be it a dynamic presentation, accessibility, offline functionality or just connecting you to content inside and outside of the article.”[4] eBooks, through the limitations of their file formats and delivery method, cannot take advantage of all the web-based multimedia technological advancements that can be maintained across multiple devices.[5]

Embracing technology in the classroom

With the iGeneration population heading into higher education, there is demand for a personalized approach to learning if course material is to be retained.[6] It will not serve professors well to simply urge students to put down their devices since many students take notes and look up relevant information to their lectures on laptops and tablets. Professors instead need to recognize the role technology plays and harness its capabilities to engage their students, keeping their attention away from distractions like texting and Facebook.[7] eLearning practices can improve retention if used properly to actively engage students.[8]

With no added interaction and personalization, students prefer print [to digital textbooks].

Print will dominate if technology doesn’t enhance the material

Web-based textbooks have the ability to adapt to each student’s learning style and level of comprehension.[9] The expense of eLearning tools and their inability to be resold at the end of the semester can be justified when the experience is tailored to their needs. Expensive digital textbooks replicating printed documents cannot make this same justification. With no added interaction and personalization, students prefer print.[10] Harington states:

Publishers looking to produce textbooks, at a range of levels, need to incorporate more flexibility for both the instructor and the student, bearing in mind such factors as interactive features such as video, audio, computer simulations and so on…with elements of curation available through customization techniques.[11]

Open Educations Resources (OER)

There are companies experimenting with Open Educational Resources (OER) to help teachers curate their course content for their students.[12],[13] Web-based textbook publishers can capitalize on this method to create integrated digital textbooks. Some big names in educational publishing are already producing integrated solutions such as Pearson’s MyLab and McGraw-Hill’s platform Connect.[14] As Robert W. Mendenhall states, “By using the technology to teach—to deliver the content of a course—we are able to free students to study what they need to learn, and to do so at their own pace.”[15] These interactive course creation and data tracking tools, utilized by eLearning courses, should be adapted by publishers for the production of singular online textbooks.

The “clunkiness” of eBooks and the EPUB file formats

EPUB files, a common format for eBooks, according to John W. Maxwell, are a way of compiling together web files in a way that actually makes them represent printed books more closely than they do the web.[16] There is a closed aspect to the standard eBook experience since users cannot connect seamlessly from eBooks to other media yet they have come to, “expect the stories to possess the linky-ness of the Web.”[17] Lorri Freifeld believes, “The ability of the eTextbook to truly become relationship-centered, empathize with the learner, and actually help the learning process take place will be the hallmarks of these next-generation eTextbooks.”[18] The content of these digital textbooks is not different from their print counterparts, the difference lies in how the information is delivered and experienced.

In comes the linking of the World Wide Web

The web offers ways to link pieces of information together in a way that an eBook cannot. Maxwell states, “The e-book privileges content where the web privileges connection.[19] Linkages from one piece of information to another can enhance a student’s understanding of a topic. The transition from reading, to looking up a definition, to finding other resources, happens seamlessly, all in one place. Companies are recognizing the importance of the social connections that the web offers. Hypothes.is is a not-for-profit that allows users to annotate any online text, building on other member’s comments, pulling in other information and links for reference.[20]

The transition from reading, to looking up a definition, to finding other resources, happens seamlessly, all in one place.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

Online Learning Management Systems (LMS) provide a place for students to connect with their eLearning courses and have a shared social experience around their education utilizing tools like group chats and blogs.[21], [22] eLearning allows for collaboration between students as well as providing a space for them to share ideas and learn from each other. Textbooks created using eLearning integrations could be implemented as both supplemental material for live classroom courses as well as existing eLearning courses.

The benefits of data capture

Digital textbooks can capture data in ways that standard eBooks cannot for the benefit of both the students and the professors. In the age of analytics where every click can be tracked online, hosting a textbook on the web allows for endless amounts of data collection that can be analyzed to enhance the overall experience. The data can provide information as to which types of learning models are most effective such as video or audio or if there is an area that students are struggling with.[23] Assessment tools built right into the textbook enable both the professor and the publisher to see measurable results and determine what needs improvement.


There is no use in putting in effort into creating an “e” version of a textbook if the format of the digital medium is not considered. Printed textbooks already do a great job of allowing students to read, annotate and highlight information as they study. Digital textbooks need to push beyond those actions to create a platform that is personalized to student’s needs and integrated with tools for performance tracking and social collaboration between students. As Maxwell states, “The publishing platform of the twenty-first century is already here; it does not need to be invented. It is the World Wide Web itself…”[24] The infinite possibilities of the web allow web-based textbooks to adapt and evolve with new technology, offering students educational experiences in-tune with how they learn and consume information, inside and outside of the classroom.


[1] The use of the word eBooks in this article represents publications built for eReading devices utilizing only native eReader functionality.

[2] Lorri Freifeld, “Evolution of the eTextbook,” Training Magazine, last modified June 27, 2013. https://trainingmag.com/content/evolution-etextbook/

[3] eLearning is a broad term used loosely, referring to any education that takes place online. For the purpose of this essay, eLearning refers to interactive online courses where the whole course is administered online. For a definition, see https://www.aeseducation.com/blog/what-is-elearning

[4] Robert Harington, “Ebooks, Innovation, and the Rebel Within,” The Scholarly Kitchen, last modified March 23, 2017. https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/03/23/ebooks-innovation-rebel-within/

[5] File formats for eBooks generally use HTML language but the final file format is delivered as one of the following: EPUB, MOBI, PDF or KPF.

[6] iGeneration is defined as those born from 1995 onwards. For more information, see https://www.npr.org/2017/09/17/548664627/move-over-millennials-here-comes-igen-or-maybe-not

[7] Dr. Robert S. Feldman, “Teaching iGen Students: It’s Not Them…It’s Us” McGraw-Hill Education, last modified September 17, 2018. https://www.mheducation.com/highered/ideas-new/teaching-igen-students.html

[8] “The Real-Time Revolution of E-Learning,” TokBox, accessed September 25, 2018. https://tokbox.com/resources/whitepaper/realtime-revolution-of-elearning

[9] Feldman, “Teaching iGen Students” https://www.mheducation.com/highered/ideas-new/teaching-igen-students.html

[10] Robert Harington, “Curation Nation: Thoughts on the Future of Textbooks” The Scholarly Kitchen, last modified August 15, 2016. https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2016/08/15/curation-nation-thoughts-on-the-future-of-textbooks/

[11] Harington, “Thoughts on the Future of Textbooks” https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2016/08/15/curation-nation-thoughts-on-the-future-of-textbooks/

[12] For an example, see Knovation https://www.knovationlearning.com/

[13] For a simple summary of the difference between Open Educational Resources and open access publishing, see https://oerknowledgecloud.org/content/what-difference-between-oer-and-open-access-publishing

[14] To read more, see https://www.pearsonmylabandmastering.com/northamerica/ and https://www.mheducation.com/highered/connect.html

[15] Robert W. Mendenhall, “How Technology Can Improve Online Learning—and Learning in General” The Chronicle of Higher Education, last modified November 6, 2011. https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Technology-Can-Improve/129616/

[16] John W. Maxwell, “E-Book Logic: We Can Do Better,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 51, no. 1 (2013): 39.

[17] Lorri Freifeld, “Evolution of the eTextbook,” https://trainingmag.com/content/evolution-etextbook/

[18] Lorri Freifeld, “Evolution of the eTextbook,” https://trainingmag.com/content/evolution-etextbook/

[19] Maxwell, “E-Book Logic,” 40.

[20] To learn more, see https://web.hypothes.is/

[21] Susan Howell and Brian O’Donnell, “Digital Trends and Initiatives in Education,” ACP (March 2017): 14. http://www.omdc.on.ca/Assets/Research/Research+Reports/Digital+Trends+and+Initiatives+in+Education/Digital+Trends+and+Initiatives+in+Education.pdf.

[22] LMS systems are the platforms for which eLearning courses are hosted or connected such as Canvas or Blackboard.

[23] Christopher Pappas, “Big Data in eLearning: The Future of eLearning Industry,” eLearning Industry, last modified July 24, 2014. https://elearningindustry.com/big-data-in-elearning-future-of-elearning-industry

[24] Maxwell, “E-Book Logic,” 45.