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Enhanced eBooks Don’t Necessarily Enhance Education

We’ve textbooks-120119-1[1]long known that when games and other enhancements are added to ebooks they can  distract readers from paying attention to the text, and now it appears that enhancements can have a negative academic impact.

Researchers at West Chester University have published a paper which looks at the impact of using digital textbooks on iPads. In a small study they found that students’ reading comprehension  was higher when they read conventional books than when they read enhanced ebook. In a second related study the researchers discovered that the students "often skipped over the text altogether".

The Schugars, a husband-and-wife research team at West Chester University, have been researching this topic for the past 3 plus years. They’ve published numerous papers, including one which I wrote about back in 2012. That paper discussed a study which showed that college students who read on ebook readers performed better on tests than the related group of students who read paper books. That is a markedly different outcome from the two most recent studies, both of which focused on students reading on tablets.

The first study compared students reading ebook apps downloaded from app stores like iTunes to students reading paper books. It focused on just 13  middle school students, so it isn’t possible to draw wide conclusions, but what the Schugars found is concerning enough to merit further study. Students showed a noticeably lower level of comprehension when they read on the iPad. The Schugars attributed the difference to the distractions of the enhancements.

In the second study, the researchers observed students in 18 classrooms where iPads and digital textbooks were in common use. The classes were being taught with enhanced digital textbooks created using iBooks Author. While students were "highly motivated by their interactions" with the enhancements found in the ebooks, they also "often skipped over text, where the meat of the information was."

While it is easy to add game-like elements to ebooks, crafting an enhanced ebook that improves upon the original is much harder. What is more likely to happen is that readers will be distracted from the text, leading to situations like in one study cited by the Schugars, which showed that children spent 43% of their ebook engagement time playing games embedded in the ebooks rather than reading the text.

So is this a sign that enhanced ebooks should be kept out of the classroom? Not exactly.

The researchers also found that some enhancements really did enhance comprehension. The researchers advised parents and educators to avoid enhanced ebooks where the enhancements distract from the text and where the enhancements are time-consuming, lead students away from the page of text they are reading, or don’t contribute academically useful features like understanding difficult vocabulary terms.

"It’s not necessarily that ebooks are bad for reading," Heather Ruetschlin Schugar said in an interview with Education Week. "But teachers need more strategies for teaching kids to use what they know about reading in an ebook environment."

NYTimes, Education Week

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Basil Baker April 26, 2014 um 3:07 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this short article! I am simply amazed at how traditional publishers have glommed onto this "enhanced" e-book revolution with nary a thought of how to implement multimedia into story and text in a truly meaningful way. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised though; mainstream publishing has long given up any pretense to be about anything other than making money.

However, as in most things, there is still great promise. So, abandon not hope; rather embrace the new. We live in a visual-entertainment society; but opinion never varies when it comes to the fulfillment readers experience from a great book of fiction. In the near future the majority of consumers will be reading on hand-held (mobile) devices – and this is a good thing as I will explain in a moment. Technological progress and innovation (i.e. affordability) in the mobile device space has been proceeding at an incredible pace. According to a PEW report, tablet ownership in the U.S. alone skyrocketed from 3% of adults in 2010, to 25% in 2012, and to 34% in 2013. Add in two more factors and one can see that it is inevitable that the digital reading revolution will actually increase readership among the general public.

The publishing paradigm shift underway would not be possible without the emergence of independent writers reaching their audience directly with their e-book titles. These voices never get past the ‘gate-keepers’ at Big Publishing – the same gate-keepers that initially turned down new writers like J.K. Rowling, self-published phenom Amanda Hocking, and literally thousands of others without the connections, the celebrity or the ‘track-record.’ The second factor involves the technology of MultiTouch, which you address in the article above. The proper, artistic, use of MultiTouch integrates text and multimedia seamlessly, much like a great children’s picture book integrates text and illustrations. These elements work together and support one another. MultiTouch ‘enhancements’ are true innovations in storytelling – not merely 'bells and whistles' – giving the writer an expanded palette. Writers can incorporate illustrations, interactive galleries, animations and music directly into the text, structure and storyline offering their readers a unique reading experience. As an example of a title that breaks ground in the new enhanced literary fiction genre, I offer “Venice Under Glass” a MultiTouch book for the iPad by Stephan J Harper. Put on your ‘severest’ critic’s hat and see for yourself what’s so remarkable about this recently published work.

As the Tablet market continues to boom, it is inevitable that MultiTouch books will become a preferred reading experience as talented independent writers team-up with, illustrators, animators and musicians around the world to create exciting new titles and tell their stories in news ways. Given the MultiTouch multimedia format, it is also inevitable that readership will expand among the general public – and that is very good news for all of us working to create a more vibrant publishing industry in the 21st century.

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