Are ebooks better than virtual learning environments?

OU ebookOk I’m not exactly comparing like with like here but I am very interested in the potential of ebooks as an alternative way of structuring learning experiences – particularly where there is a large amount of reading involved.

With the growing penetration of tablet devices (ownership in the US doubled to 19% over last Christmas) ebooks now have enormous potential for providing learning opportunities. And with nearly a third of UK citizens already owning a smartphone, many of them may be prepared to study extensively from ebooks on smaller screens. Due to my deteriorating eyesight I’m not one of them; tablets are clearly more comfortable devices for extended periods of study so this post relates mainly to tablets.

While the information delivered through an ebook may be identical to that provided on a website, there are several attributes of ebooks which may make them more appealing to learners than accessing content in a VLE:

Learners can own an ebook – they can’t own their institution’s VLE
An ebook is a digital version of a familiar physical product that people have grown up with. Physical books cost money and the transition to paying for a digital copy may not be too painful but people don’t like to pay for access to websites, showing that they value ebooks more. This sense of ownership may encourage learners to engage more with the content of an ebook than a website.

Ebooks can be viewed offline
Once you’ve taken possession of your ebook onto your device you’re free to view it whenever you like which is particularly useful when travelling or away from internet access.

Ebooks are self-contained
The web is a confusing place with an overwhelming number of sites and pages. It’s easy to get distracted when using the web by hyperlinks and other applications.

Ebook readers on tablets take up the whole screen
A web browser has all sorts of tool bars, menus and icons which may distract the reader and provide a less immersive experience than reading an ebook on a tablet.

You know how much you’ve read and how much there is to go
By default an ebook clearly signposts how far through its content you are. Websites may not make this clear – and indeed can’t normally do this as precisely as ebooks due to the variable page lengths of the web.

Automatic pagination makes reading easier
Due to the variety of devices, browsers and configurations, the designer of a web page cannot produce content that will consistently fill the entire screen. Users have a more complex navigational process which may involve vertical scrolling as well as page turning. One of the key features of ebook reader software is the automatic repagination to suit the platform and user preferences such as font size.

Page turning is physically easier with an ebook on a tablet
The touch screen of a tablet or smartphone allows the user to move forwards and backwards between pages with a touch or swipe – a simpler and faster process than turning the page of a physical book and also much easier than using a mouse to navigate to and click on a particular part of a web page.

Far be it from me to suggest that the VLE is dead but given all the affordances of ebooks accessed on tablets it looks like much of the learning activity currently taking place in VLEs is heading to the ebook instead.

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