The success of famed horror author Stephen King’s experiment with electronic book technology this summer was encouraging to school officials intrigued by the technology’s possibilities for K-12 education. But, despite pockets of innovation in a few schools around the country, how soon the technology becomes the “next big thing” for education might depend on two factors: the integration of multimedia capabilities into tomorrow’s generation of devices and the willingness of textbook publishers to adapt their way of thinking to the digital age.

Electronic books, or eBooks, are exactly what they sound like: books presented in digital format to be read directly from the screen of a PC, laptop, Palm Pilot, or specially designed personal eBook reader.

“Stephen King publishing his new book online is really a revolutionary event for publishing. As usually happens, it is more likely that business and consumer markets will lead the way before schools,” said Eric Walusis, president of Searchlight eBooks. Searchlight provides full-service eBook systems integration for its clients, including needs analysis and recommendations, implementation, and training.

“But things move more quickly now that they did in the past. It won’t take 10 years. I think we’ll see schools with eBooks” as soon as next fall, Walusis said.

eBook advocates see a vast array of educational opportunities in the fledgling technology.

“eBooks are economical because, first, the content can be continuously updated, and you are not investing in all that physical paper,” Walusius said. “Second, the material is always current. Third, the cost of the technology is so low. Schools are still of the mindset that the price of entry for technology is the price of an internet-connected PC, approximately $2,000. All we’re saying is that there is an intermediate step that provides rich-media electronic content at an affordable price.”

“Average textbooks are a year out of date as they roll off the press. Paper just can’t keep up with the pace of change,” said Bill Hill, researcher for Microsoft Reader, a software program for reading eBooks designed to be used on Palm Pilots, laptops, and PCs.

“Ease of updating is a huge benefit. At many schools, books are only updated every eight years. Updated material is critical for some courses,” said George Kerscher, chairman of the Open eBook Forum, a nonprofit association boasting more than 1,000 members from the publishing industry, technology service organizations, the disabled community, and software companies. Some members of the forum include Adobe, Gemstar, Glassbook, Microsoft, McGraw-Hill, Random House, Amazon.com, Houghton-Mifflin, Simon and Schuster, and Digital Owl.

According to Kerscher, eBooks will give students the ability to adjust the presentation of material. For example, a student with poor vision can increase the font size, making it easier to read. eBooks also can contain built-in tools, such as dictionaries.

“Students will certainly look up meanings to words if it is easier to do. Kids can also annotate their texts. The notes are layered on top of the books themselves and can later be expunged,” Kerscher said.

“Print books have always been a real barrier to students with disabilities. If developed correctly, eBooks won’t have those barriers, making education more inclusive for all students,” he added.

eBook supporters say multimedia-capable readers could be a deciding factor in schools’ acceptance of eBook technology.

“Once we see both audio and video in the readers, that is when eBooks will really separate from traditional books,” Kerscher said.

But eBooks are not quite there yet, most observers agree.

“Some think K-12 is ripe for eBooks, and the business model just needs to adjust, while others believe a textbook page is too difficult for current technology to support. I think right now the current crop of eBook readers wouldn’t be that good at handling the richness of a textbook. But that technology is not far off,” said David Palmer. Palmer is the senior vice president for publishing at MesaView, a company specializing in creating software that converts print files into eBook platforms.

Not far off, indeed. At a recent eBook conference in San Francisco, attendees had the opportunity to view the next generation of eBook devices, complete with audio, video, hyperlinks, and a variety of other features.

“Though readers did not have the capability for multimedia in the past, we are definitely starting to see it now. Come January, we expect the major producers of eBook readers to release multimedia versions,” said Yessic Spencer, program manager for Digital Owl, a company that specializes in digitizing, encrypting, and packaging books in print so they can be distributed for eBook use.

Market growth

In the past year, several large corporations have announced, acquired, or released devices or platforms that enable eBooks to be downloaded and read, marking the first major industry thrust for hardware.

According to MesaView’s Palmer, there are three major players entering the market: Adobe, which recently acquired eBook software provider Glassbook; Microsoft, with its Microsoft Reader platform; and Gemstar, which recently acquired Rocket eBooks.

“The market is really exploding. Gemstar just bought Nouveau Media, the makers of Rocket eBooks, and Softbook outright. The new Rocket eBooks will be marketed under the RCA name,” said Walusis.

“In the past two years, Rocket eBooks and Softbooks combined have shipped roughly 20,000 units. With this big consumer market push there will be, conservatively, a half-million units on store shelves by the end of this calendar year. Everyone is shipping this fall in hopes of hitting the Christmas season hard,” he added.

But educators, having long heard the wonders of eBook technology extolled, might wonder what growth in the consumer market means for the future of eBooks in K-12 schools.

“In some ways things are a lot more real and solid than they were a year ago, and in some ways they are not. The resources are there, but a lot of people in education have not said, ‘OK, we are going to do this,'” said Walusis.

One indication that the tide may be turning in favor of eBooks is that several major players—such as Microsoft—have created systems that support electronic texts.

“There are companies manufacturing software for eBooks, most significantly Microsoft Reader. It is a software package that allows you to read eBooks on your PC or laptop, and it will soon be shipped free with Windows,” Walusis said. Version 1 of the software “was first shipped on the Pocket PC, and on August 8 it was made available [at no cost] on the Microsoft Reader web site.”

“Version 1 was not designed for education per se; however, there has been a huge amount of interest from education,” said Microsoft’s Hill. “The main point of the first version was to prove that people will read for extended periods of time from a screen. I think we have done that.”

“I think there are people in education that are really ready to embrace eBooks, but it will depend on a few factors before implementation,” Kerscher said. “First, we have to drop the price a little bit. Once eBooks are more reasonable, we will see more of them in schools. And second, the content needs to be there.”

Early adopters in education

The first of these factors already is happening, Walusis said.

“I think that once there’s a wide range of choices, the pricing for eBooks will continue to drop. The least expensive readers right now, made by Franklin, sell for $129, while the RCA model [formerly the Rocket eBook Reader] will go for around $700 or $800. By next spring, I’m sure we’ll see $99 readers. That is almost the price of a textbook,” he said.

“When a single textbook costs $75 and you can get an eBook reader that can hold 50 titles for a few dollars more, it just makes sense. It is surprising that more schools aren’t looking at this strongly,” he added.

A few schools are, though most existing programs still are in testing mode.

St. Elizabeth’s Catholic School in Chicago has developed custom curriculum and targeted use of portable eBook readers by all 45 students in their two fourth-grade classrooms. The program, funded by a Title III technology grant, provides the two classes with a set of Rocket eBooks to share. The school hired Searchlight to train the two teachers and also two administrators on how to use and adapt available content.

Response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The teachers had some training over the summer, and they really liked what the technology could do,” said St. Elizabeth’s Principal Jeanetta Terry.

“When the fourth graders got the readers at the end of last year, they were really enthused. I think anything that looks like a computer, kids like. We hope to see growth in both reading and language skills over the next year,” she said.

Robert Parks, school board member for Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools, said his district is considering a pilot program with a Utah company called Interactive Learning Systems (ILS), possibly at one of the district’s magnet schools.

“We’ve seen the future and we think it is in virtual books,” he said. “Right now, we are exploring the idea further. We expect to have a pilot program using ILM’s vSlate [for Virtual Slate] ready in January. If not then, in the fall of 2001 for sure. But we are thinking very immediately about taking technology to the next level.”

Jerry Brereton, president of ILS, said, “We’re putting our new vSlates into several pilot districts in Utah. Right now, we are at 11 schools who want to participate and counting.”

Digital Owl also is preparing for a K-12 test program. According to Spencer, the company hopes to digitize several textbooks for the University of Central Florida and two local high schools. “We don’t know how many books we will convert yet,” he said. “The schools have to decide, and the textbook publishers have to approve those decisions. The publishers have a lot of fear that they won’t be able to protect their content if it is digitized.”

Availability of content

Though the cost might not be prohibitive for schools, the lack of available textbook content for eBook devices could be. In an industry catch-22, textbook publishers interpret a lack of public demand as a reason to delay converting textbooks into digital format.

According to Margaret Sherry, a spokeswoman for Houghton-Mifflin, “We see technology as complementing and supplementing core textbook programs. At this time, there is not a huge demand for supplanting textbooks with an online version.”

Sherry maintained that her company has not ruled out digitizing its textbook content, however: “Houghton-Mifflin’s asset is our content, and we can deliver that content in any platform we see a desire for. The trends continue to evolve and we intend to evolve with them, but right now we just don’t see a demand for cover-to-cover textbook content.”

Textbook publishers “have to be very careful exactly what they say because this is whole new area for them, and most of them are under contract with printing companies,” Parks said. “I can say that we are talking with a very large publisher that is very interested in what we’re doing. The conversations we are having are at the highest level.”

“We are in the process of talking to textbook publishers right now to get textbook content in a cover-to-cover format,” ILS’s Brereton added. “I’m not at liberty to discuss who exactly, but in the next 60 days we expect to strike a deal with a major textbook publisher to use their content. But we’ll be rolling out pilot programs with the content we have already.”

The content the company already has consists of a wireless network that allows units to communicate with one another, administer tests, and perform other basic functions. The vSlate system, which Parks likens to an Etch-a-Sketch, is totally wireless; an antenna in each school delivers a signal to all the vSlate units through a repeater located every 150 feet or so throughout the building. The only cost is the antenna and the repeaters, about $3,000 per school, and the vSlates, around $249 per unit.

eBook enthusiasts remain optimistic about the prospects for downloadable education content in the next few years. They’d better be right, for accessible educational content is the single biggest key to widespread acceptance of eBooks in schools, according to most industry experts.

“The books teachers want to have must be available or people won’t use this technology,” said Andrew Watts, a spokesman for goReader, a company that makes and markets electronic textbooks and readers to colleges and universities. GoReader hopes to market to K-12 schools in the near future.

“Content is starting to really bear some fruit. McGraw-Hill, Simon and Schuster, and Random House have all launched electronic divisions. And there are a lot of players now that weren’t here a year ago,” said Searchlight’s Walusis. “Not everything is available yet, but by the end of this school year I think for all practical purposes you will be able to find any category of title that you want electronically.”

For now, St. Elizabeth’s School uses pre-installed stories taken from a web site that allows free downloads of public-access texts.

“We hope to download content from the Chicago Public Library in the future,” said Sister Maureen Carroll, the school’s director of development. “They have an extensive eBook library. But we have not researched the possibility of doing that yet.”

Another option is to subscribe to the Barnes and Noble site and pay a fee, but “we’d have to pay for 30 licenses per class,” she added. “Like any other teaching tool, it depends on teacher creativity.”

Standardization of the technology

Kerscher’s organization, the Open eBook Forum, is trying to establish standards for eBooks so that content can be delivered through many different yet compatible platforms.

“Right now, the format tends to be closed for each reader. For instance, a file used by Microsoft Reader can’t be used by a Softbook or a Palm Pilot as well. The Open eBook Forum advocates the use of a standard format,” he said.

Industry experts speculate that another reason traditional textbook publishers may be hesitant to produce their content in digital format is the result of fallout from the controversy surrounding Napster and MP3 technology.

“Major publishers are getting on board fast [with creating standards for digital book content]. They are trying to protect their business model so the same thing won’t happen to them that happened to the recording industry when MP3s came around. In that case, the recording industry waited too long to act. It’s over for them now. They can shut Napster down; people will just eMail MP3s to one another. They should have found a model to facilitate MP3 technology so they could make a dime off it,” said Walusis.

“Digital rights management is very important,” agreed Kerscher. “That is the process of ensuring the integrity of the electronic books by making sure they are from a reputable source and protected from illegal copying. Right now, each reading system has its own digital rights management solution until we can put a comprehensive one in place [through] the Open eBook Forum.”

Most industry watchers seem confident that eBooks will catch on in K-12 schools once content and multimedia components are available.

“As far as teacher adoption, it is a done deal. If you deliver a readable option to students and teachers, they will jump all over it,” said Microsoft’s Hill.