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Exploring the E-Textbook (Part 2)

By Laurence Lachapelle-Bégin. The 22 October 2012

Electronic book - vector © venimo -
Electronic book - vector © venimo -

In Part 1 of this series, we presented the main features and formats of e-textbooks. In this second article, we present tools and resources for two e-textbook development strategies: re-using existing educational material, and creating your own ePub document.

Producing an E-Textbook

Like most educational material, creating an e-textbook requires time, resources, skills and support. Therefore, any project should start with a needs analysis in order to determine if there is a clear advantage in using an e-textbook to reach your educational goals. If so, many free or open-source resources are available to design and develop it. In this article, we present educational content repositories that offer open e-textbooks that can be reused or remixed; we also propose a few tools for publishing a textbook in ePub, an open and international standard format created specifically for e-books.

Re-using existing educational material

An e-textbook does not have to be created from scratch. For many years now, participants in the open education movement (which promotes among other ideas that knowledge should be usable and re-usable for free) have made thousands of open educational resources (OER) available on the Internet, including textbooks. For example, educational content repository MERLOT puts over 2,200 open e-textbooks at the disposal of educators and students.

Other OER repositories make textbooks available by chapters, which facilitates remix and personalization. For instance, CK-12 Foundation produces free, open-source, online textbooks for STEM curricula, which can be read online, or downloaded chapter by chapter in PDF, ePub, and a format readable by the Kindle e-reader. A similar resource is Connexions, an educational content repository and content management system where you can find open access textbooks and build course modules to be either viewed online, or downloaded as PDF or ePub files.

Another model of customized e-textbook creation based on OER was introduced by Boundless, a small company that offers free online “alternatives” to well-known college textbooks by combining open-source resources that correspond to the original textbook's content. The company's launch in April 2012 was almost immediately followed by a copyright lawsuit filed by a group of three major publishers, claiming Boundless' concept is in fact intellectual theft. The case highlights a increasing discomfort in the educational world: knowledge that was once mainly in the hands of academics and textbook publishers is now accessible to all on the Internet, for free. Will schools and students continue to purchase expensive textbooks when teachers can produce instructional material tailored to their needs, given appropriate time and resources? Indeed, the number of tools for digital book development is growing, for various levels of computer skills. We present a few here, with a focus on the ones that allow to produce documents in the open format ePub.

Creating an ePub document

The key to producing an e-textbook in ePub is to work with structured documents. If you are working with a word processor, you must use styles in order to differentiate body text from headings, images, citations, references, etc., in your document. Then, publishing your textbook in ePub can be done with a number of free software applications.

One of the most user-friendly options is the open-source word processor Writer from, in which you can publish ePub files with the extension Writer2ePub. The extension is not a file converter; it creates a new ePub file on your computer at the same location as the original file. The original document can be written directly in Writer; it can also be an existing document written with Microsoft Office Word or Google Documents (as long as it is structured with styles). In that case, it must be saved as an OpenDocument file (.odt), opened with Writer, and published with Writer2ePub.

Another interesting software is the open-source e-book editor Sigil, which can convert text and HTML files to ePub format, as well as create an e-textbook from scratch.

Converting PDF documents to ePub format can be done with the file converter Calibre, but results may vary depending on the formatting and layout of the original file. If you are comfortable with command-line tools, you can convert files with Pandoc. If you are familiar with coding, you can also use DocBook, a semantic language that allows content creation in a neutral form, which makes publication possible in various formats (including ePub), without modifying the source file.

For iPad and Mac owners, the free application iBooks Author can be used to design e-books, but for now, you cannot directly export from iBooks Author to ePub, nor can you import ePub files back in. Converting an iBook into an ePub file is not so simple: a solution is to save the file in PDF format and then convert it to ePub, but Apple-specific design features will be lost along the way.

Regardless of the tool, starting small is key: use a short piece of your work to experiment, and see if the software fits your needs and technical abilities. Search for "how to create an e-book" or "how to convert [Format 1] to [Format 2]" on YouTube to access dozens of video tutorials; specify the software and format you are interested in your search for more precise results. Make sure you also read the development tool’s user licence, in order to avoid any difficulties or disputes.

Creating a high-quality e-textbook is a serious engagement, and choosing an appropriate development strategy is only part of it. Even before writing the first line, decisions need to be made about the textbook’s format, content, copyrights and access management. If you are working alone, you will need to plan your project schedule carefully, or arrange for release time. So, even if e-textbook production is now within the reach of educators, is it really worth the effort? In the third and last article of this series, we will discuss this question and the future of e-textbooks in education.

Sincere thanks to Réjean Payette, Marc-Antoine Parent, and Pierre-Julien Guay, whose expertise and materials, featured in VTÉ's activity "Labo VTÉ : S'approprier le manuel numérique" served as references for this article.

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