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NISO on Ebooks: Dynamic, Open, and Cheap
Posted On September 23, 2014
NISO (National Information Standards Organization) hosted a two-part webinar on Sept. 10 and 17. E-books for Education explored definitions, content, access, and open access (OA) issues affecting the present state and future course of ebooks for education.

NISO “identifies, develops, maintains, and publishes technical standards to manage information in our changing and ever-more digital environment. NISO standards apply both traditional and new technologies to the full range of information-related needs, including retrieval, re-purposing, storage, metadata, and preservation.” It is time, it seems, to apply some technical standards to etextbooks.

Part 1: Electronic Textbooks: Plug In and Learn

Part 1 of the extended webinar dealt with textbook costs, student use of and engagement with ebooks, and a roundup of the Internet2/EDUCAUSE etextbook initiative with the University of South Florida and other institutions. Nicole Allen of SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) pointed out the increasing impact of rising textbook prices; up to 50% of students have chosen not to take as many courses as they would have due to the cost of their textbooks. The costs of the textbooks themselves, in addition to tuition, have prevented student access to knowledge in courses: “You can’t learn from materials you can’t afford.” The suggestion is that the high prices of traditional (print) textbooks limit access to materials and also to entire courses of study. If institutions do move to OA etextbooks, presuming they are cheaper, the utility of these sources will also have to be addressed. Merely to provide etextbooks is not enough—developing models to make the best use of them is vital.

Reggie Cobb of Nash Community College in North Carolina presented ways etextbooks could do more and work harder, as well as strategies for heading off potential problems by incorporating interactive media through “learning paths” that minimize distraction and reinforce content. The pilot project by Internet2 and EDUCAUSE is organized around three major goals: replacing print textbooks with ebooks, site-license access (rather than individual student purchase), and publisher/platform-independent methods of access. More than a dozen institutions participated in the project, with positive results for thousands of students (some 73% reported greater levels of course engagement with etextbooks, for example).

Part 2: Open Textbook Initiatives

Part 2’s participants considered the role and responsibilities of academic libraries, a project by Kansas State University (K-State) students to fund alternative textbooks, and the OA model of Boundless. MIT professor Nick Montfort’s survey of the issues led to five takeaways for libraries from an “e-literature” perspective:

  • Make use of ebooks and do not settle for only being a resource for the printed “Penguin paperback.”
  • Follow the example of e-literature (e.g., a literary version of the New Aesthetic), which makes use of copyleft culture.
  • Take time for “public readings, signings, sharings.”
  • Consider all that digital text does that print can’t, and play to those strengths.
  • “Embrace computation” and use data.

Next was a survey of open etextbook initiatives at academic libraries by librarians at Oregon State University. More libraries are beginning to take their roles in this issue (or confluence of issues around cost, successful learning, and access) seriously. But then again, students are too: The student government of K-State successfully took matters into its own hands to raise funds for exploring alternative textbooks in an effort to challenge the “default textbook culture.” Gemma Fay of Boundless ended the webinar with thoughts on the power of expanding OERs (open electronic repositories) to increase access to education.

Planning for the Future

NISO is an interesting host for such discussions. Its mission statement says that it “fosters the development and maintenance of standards that facilitate the creation, persistent management, and effective interchange of information so that it can be trusted for use in research and learning.” As libraries, publishers, and educators find themselves on board with student needs (not just student “wants”), and as multimedia content settles into “learning paths” that give some sense of direction to sprawling and rambling content, we might expect to see NISO and ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards for the development of specific elements of etextbooks. Standards could be useful if they lead to better practices and greater efficiencies.

The use of etextbooks is increasing globally, but with quality that varies greatly. In the United Arab Emirates, after a 2012 decree by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, former president of Zayed University, Abu Dhabi and Dubai campuses had to institute processes for the creation, control, access, and use of ebooks in a short period of time. This was due to the sudden decision to require all students, faculty, and staff to use iPads and develop iBooks (the iPad Mobile Learning Initiative). Similar quick rollouts of tablets in Thailand and Hong Kong have shown both the strengths and weaknesses of moving to etextbooks. The Chinese government is moving aggressively toward tablets and ebooks on the grounds that some books are up to 63% cheaper in digital formats, which could count as a cost-savings “strength.” Yet, as Ouda Ena points out in research on etextbooks, old-fashioned connectivity problems (and connectivity costs) can prevent dependable access to etextbooks in countries such as Indonesia. Untrustworthy connections or low bandwidths challenge students in the rural West too.

Move Ahead Online

NISO, librarians, Boundless, OpenStax, and students themselves, though, are not waiting for universal high-speed access before moving ahead with the promotion of cheaper and free/libre textbooks. Even if we are not all universally prepared to “do” etextbooks perfectly, it seems that enough stakeholders are ready to see some changes and to move ahead imperfectly in the meantime.

As more local governments and legislatures (including those in California and Virginia) take up the issue of price and access, the push for ebooks will affect students at all levels, and NISO retains its interest in these issues. In the next few months, BISG (Book Industry Study Group) will host three eBook Ninjas workshops, and a Digital Book World Conference will take place in 2015. The textbook and ebook scenes are changing quickly, and NISO knows it. Can we expect waymarkers on standardized “learning paths” in the next generation of etextbooks? 

Woody Evans (@quarrywork) is a librarian from Mississippi who now lives in Texas. A longtime contributor to NewsBreaks and Information Today, his work has also appeared in JukedMondo 2000, Boing Boing, Motherboard, American Libraries, and others. He is the author of Building Library 3.0 and Information Dynamics in Virtual Worlds, one of which is aging well. For fun and pain he rows and meditates. 

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