E-book standards may lack the glamour that the technology attracts, but the arrival of ePub3 has the potential to transform how the academy creates and delivers its content to students and researchers.
Just weeks into the New Year and already there is a new e-books revelation that colleges and universities need to digest. January saw the launch of Apple’s new iBooks2 software which grabbed headlines (see the BBC article here) and sparked heated debate across the academic community.
Quietly underpinning the technology of the iBooks software is ePub. ePub is the ‘de facto’ e-book standard, with the latest version of ePub3 supporting complex layouts and rich media and interactivity for eTextbooks and professional and scientific publications.
Supporting institutions and academics in taking advantage of these new technologies saw Jisc fund the creation of a thinktank to explore the potential of ePub for the academic community. Jisc, the members of the thinktank and Edina at the University of Edinburgh, undertook a study on ePub and the current e-book landscape.
Digital Monographs: Technical landscape exemplars and Recommendations peers beneath the eye-catching headlines and provides an important message for institutions and how they increasingly adapt their teaching and support services to an online, interactive and digital future.
Importantly, the report identifies areas where ePub3 can help institutions, students and researchers confront some of the problems they currently face. For example, students face a continued rise in the costs associated with buying print text books. Researchers too find that they have to adjust to an increasingly open mandate from funders and institutions.
EPub provides opportunities for institutions to answer critical problems such as those above and others:
- Academics and researchers can publish their work cheaply and easily, benefitting students as well as researchers who may be outside an academic institution;
- It is easily readable on multiple devices (from phones to tablets and desktop) and can be accessed from popular platforms;
- It provides a clean copy of text or data for quoting – essential for the scholarly process;
- ePub3 realises the potential for highly interactive and rich academic content,
- It has no legal restrictions or patents preventing its open use,
The report also provides a picture of the current e-book landscape and the impact that e-books and mobile access are having on the support institutions provide to their students and academics. In particular there is a lot of talk about student expectations; but scholars’ expectations are changing rapidly.
As the report makes clear: The next generation of scholars will be educated in a context of increasingly-digital learning materials. Their expectations for ease of discovery, format-shifting, mobile access and multimedia exemplars will extend beyond e-textbooks used at the undergraduate level (P. 15).
Increasingly these expectations are focussing around mobile access and consumption: “...mobile devices are ubiquitous, personal and always at hand; even if they are not the locus of sustained content consumption, they are a critical adjunct” (p. 38).
Jisc has been interested in the transformations taking place in scholarly publishing and communications for a number of years, most recently with its work on scholarly communications and the idea of campus-based publishing. Indeed, the availability of cheap and easy e-book publishing platforms combined with open licensing is the basis for a growth in open textbooks , often with significant public investment (for example in California).
While processes such as peer-review ensure the quality and value of scholarly outputs, ePub3 could see academia exploit a trend that’s already witnessing blockbuster authors such as JK Rowling withholding digital rights and publishing e-books directly.
The once high barriers to such a future are being rapidly lowered with ePub and similar standards. Criticlaly, ePub reuses existing technologies wherever possible, for example, XML, XHTML, and has led to ePub being described as “a website in a box”:
Its technology stack is heavily borrowed from web technologies. This allowed a number of e-book readers to be developed quickly using web browsers as base platforms
It also means that the technologies and tools are ones familiar to many in the academic community; this is based on existing technologies, ensuring it is quickly adopted within the academy.
With open standards like ePub3 and the Jisc Digital Monographs: Technical landscape exemplars and Recommendations report institutions are in a great position to start taking advantage of these technologies and providing students and their researchers with the tools enhance their learning and research and give UK institutions a cutting-edge in the competitive world of education.
Find out more about the report and its 10 recommendations for the future of e-books in education.