Making ebooks more interactive: logistics and ethics

Ebook reader image (c) Andrew Mason licensed under Creative Commons

I had an interesting discussion yesterday with Phil Butcher, the Open University’s e-assessment guru.  He wanted to talk about whether we should invest in embedding our wide range of interactive question types in ebooks.

Since the 1970s Open University course teams have attempted to get students to think more deeply about the content they are reading by embedding questions within the course texts.  Accessing such questions on digital devices has some clear advantages over paper: many different question types are available and you can receive instant feedback, tailored to your response.

This is of course quite possible with web-based learning.  We have OpenMark questions embedded at various points in some of our texts and are considering whether we should adapt Moodle to be able to present single questions within texts in the same way.

But what do we do about ebooks?  Almost all of our content is now available in ebook format on a range of platforms.  If the interactive questions work in print and are even better presented online then shouldn’t we be incorporating them in the ebooks too?

To do this at scale we would have to have an automated process to export the items (questions together with possible responses etc) from Moodle into the ebooks.  Ebooks can render interactive questions using HTML5 but there is a variety of ebook formats, differing hardware and software platforms and a range of ebook reader apps.  The software for this export process would require continual tricky and expensive maintenance to stay on top of all the various formats and there would inevitably be features which worked on one platform and not another.  Another option would be to build our own ebook reader software to be able to optimise the user experience but that too would be complex, costly, have to work on multiple platforms and require ongoing maintenance.

There’s something about the paradigm of a book as a way of presenting digital content in the confusing world of the Internet which gives it appeal (I expanded on this in Are ebooks better than virtual learning environments?): in particular you can download an ebook as a complete self-contained package, access it offline and feel a sense of ownership over it in a way which you can’t with the content on websites.  You can also quickly grasp how many pages it is, navigate easily and know where you are in it.  And of course the ability to alter the font size of an ebook and have it repaginate automatically, to hold it in your hands, and to not have your experience cluttered with the many icons and menus of a PC-based interface all add to its usability.

One of the advantages of ebooks may however be problematic for educational institutions: offline reading.  That means no opportunity to see how students are using any interactive questions.  A valuable source of data for learning analytics to monitor uptake and performance is never gathered – and opportunities for enhancing problematic questions and the associated learning content are lost.  Meanwhile the learner potentially loses out too: there is no chance for institutions to target interventions at students who might be at risk of dropping out or might benefit from being able to compare their performance with other students.

A way around this would be to incorporate recording of user activity into ebook reader software and send it to a server every time the user goes online.  And if we’re recording information about the use of interactive questions why not record data such as how often often the book is being read, dwell time on pages or number of times pages are re-read.  Again that might tell us something about how effective our learning content is or what difficult concepts need to be explained better in future iterations, ultimately benefiting students.  This approach is already being taken by CourseSmart, a company which rents out textbooks and enables usage monitoring through their ebook reader software.

But what are the ethics of this?  While arguably most people are accepting, if not entirely comfortable, that anything they do online is potentially being monitored by those hosting the website this may not be true for ebooks.  Is there something fundamentally different about an ebook where we feel we own it, as we would a physical copy, and would resist the idea that we are being snooped on – even if the snooping was aimed at enhancing our learning?

Universities should be entirely transparent about what they do with any data gathered while students are accessing their systems and content.  It is quite easy to argue that most educational institutions will monitor usage primarily for the purpose of enhancing the educational experience for individuals and for future students.  This is in contrast to commercial entities and social networking sites which monitor usage in order to target marketing at you more effectively or to sell information about you to others.

But what if monitoring ebook usage has a negative effect on the learning experience?  If I’m spending a quiet evening at home reading an ebook and I know that every page turn, click or interaction is being monitored will that make me anxious and somehow less able to learn?   Assuming that we could build this monitoring facility into ebooks, or buy it from someone else, the best way forward from an ethical and pedagogical perspective may be to allow users to decide whether data about them can be collected and sent back to the institution or not.  Research is needed into what learners want out of their ebooks and whether they’re prepared to have data collected about their use of the interactive questions that are designed to promote deeper and more reflective learning.

Ebook reader image (c) Andrew Mason licensed under Creative Commons

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