Using Electronic Texts as the Course Textbook.

Terence W. Cavanaugh Ph.D.

College of Education and Human Services, University of North Florida, USA



Abstract: With technology it is possible to bypass the printed text and adapt to electronic forms of text as part of the course readings.  Reasons for using electronic text for text books include: Accessibility, Cost, Currency, and Access. One common accommodation done for students with disabilities is obtaining electronic versions of the text material, which can be adapted to the student by methods such as changing font structure or using text-to-speech software. The costs of paper text books have been rising in the double digits while many digital versions are less expensive. The electronic text book is not limited to special classroom situations, and can be used as one of the standards texts in most situations. As some books are no longer available in paper print electronic versions are the only option. Instructors must analyze and decide if the use of electronic text provides students better access to the reading materials.


Using Electronic Texts as the Course Textbook.


“Why buy the cow, when the milk is free?”

“Why buy a cow when all you want is milk?”


An instructor who has been using electronic text materials and eBooks as course books in teaching education for over five years indicates that using electronic text and eBooks is for the most part instructional no different than print based materials.  The main reasons for the use these electronic text eBooks include: Accessibility to the material; Cost of the book; Currency of the material; and Access to materials that are no longer in print or access is prevented due to location of the students. During a period over five years of how the author has been using the eBooks in the teaching of education and educational technology.  In personal interviews with instructors at a midsize southern university’s college of education, over 80%  of the instructors indicated that they use some form of electronic text (online articles, eBooks, web sites, etc.) with their students at least some of the time.


In the teaching of education, as with most university courses, the textbook has been a basic component of the course.  With today’s technology it is possible to bypass the printed text and adapt instead to including electronic forms of text as part of the course reading materials. Student access and use of technology has been rising, today over 47% of even middle and high school students have access to the internet in their own homes, and 98% of today K-12 classrooms have internet access.  Currently there are over 54 million homes have computers, making them the majority at 51%, with 80% of those homes having some form of internet connectivity (U.S. Census Bureau 2001).  As a matter record one of largest most common complaints from technology able students is that schools and teachers don’t make good use of the web as a classroom tool (NSTA Reports 2002) the use of electronic text does provide an effective educational application of the technology.



Accessibility, Cost, Currency, and Access


One thing that all educations need to be prepared for in today’s teaching environment is the possibility that students with special needs for students with disabilities will be present in our classes.  One of the most common accommodations done for students with disabilities is to obtain the text material as electronic text. Once text is in an electronic format the text can be adapted to the student by methods such as enlarging the font, using text-to-speech software, changing the contrast between the text and background, and using summary analysis programs.  If the instructor is using a standard text book with a class and needs to obtain an electronic version for a student with special needs, digital versions can be requested from the publishers; usually this is done though the office of student services, or the school district special education department.  The request process does take a while and will require special forms and permissions concerning copyright, some publishers today are starting to also produce their books as electronic text documents which students can purchase.


While instructors may want students to use and learn from a variety of texts, the costs of text books in the recent past has been rising in the double digits.  From university and other reports during the 10 years between 1983 and 1993 campus book costs increased of over ninety percent, and that during the last five years, since 1998, textbook costs has risen an additional 41 percent so that today at many colleges students pay between $250-$500 for just books each semester (Schumer 2003; Toner 1998; Montclair State 2000; Christendom 2003). Within my own teaching I have noted the rising expense in that some of the books that I use today cost over $75.00 a copy. Because of this expense and from the requests of students this author endeavored to locate suitable, inexpensive electronic text books for my students to use. In an evaluation of online libraries and other resource sites a number of quality support texts were located and then made accessible for student use.


Depending on the instructional field if students are to be up to date, it may be necessary to bypass the text version.  For example the field of instructional technology  is a rapidly changing field, new products, operating systems, networks and applications often make print versions out of date by the time that they are printed. Using electronic versions offers the instructor and student access to products and writings still in the developmental phase, preparing the students for next technology generation.


For some courses the use of electronic text may be the ideal format, for example courses taught through internet based distance learning.  This use of an eBook as the text makes the book immediately available to the students, not requiring them to come to the campus book store, this has been found to be exceptionally useful when in teaching in situations where there are no book stores for students to access, such as when a student who’s military unit was stationed overseas and another of a student who took a class while a resident of another country, and even if the student had been able to order the book, it would have taken two to four weeks for the books to be shipped there.  In addition to distance learning situations eBooks and electronic texts have been found to be very useful when teaching away from the instructor’s home campus, a recent experience of the author involved team teaching in another country, where all students were able to download their books to read even with limited internet access.  The electronic text book though is not limited to special classroom situations, and can be used as one of the standards texts in most situations.


Another reason for changing from print to electronic versions of some books is because the books are no longer available in paper print. In the teaching of education a book that has been used consistently before was titled Curriculum Frameworks and was published by the state department of education, to save costs the DOE stopped publishing a paper version of the book and instead compiled all the curriculum areas texts along with the special education curriculum texts into a single bookshelf CD which was then easier, and cheaper, to produce and distribute.  Now students use this CD as one of their books, reading whichever curriculum frameworks book is the more appropriate to their situation.  The Curriculum Frameworks CD contains over twelve books including ones for Science, Mathematics, Social Studies, Physical Education, Arts, Language Arts; Related Arts with each book providing information on curriculum and instruction in addition to the state standards for each subject area.



Formats and Availability


There are a number of formats and approaches to using electronic texts, some teachers approach is to use a series of stored documents, websites or web pages that students are directed to for reading. Another option is to use instead a text which is totally available in an electronic text such as an eBook or web format, both approaches could either be downloaded from the internet or provided to the student on a form of storage media, such as a CD. Currently while there are a large number of eBook formats, the major electronic book format leaders are Microsoft’s Reader and Adobe’s eBook Reader, along with a number of other lesser used formats.  No matter what format is selected there are a number of advantages and disadvantages associated with digital text (see Table 1).  Instructors must analyze the situation to decide if the use of electronic forms text will provide students with better access to the reading materials.


Advantages of electronic texts

Disadvantages of electronic text

  • Cost (depending on book)
  • Scaffolds and supports built in
  • Hyperlinking to other resources
  • Text to speech  output
  • Direct linking to sections of books for students to read
  • Weight of book
  • Interior text searching
  • Annotation logs
  • Book desired is not available
  • Formats differences
  • Internet access needed
  • Computer access needed
  • Not having a hard copy to reference sections in class


Table 1: Comparison of advantages and disadvantages of using electronic text as the text book.


Currently, according to project Gutenberg (2001) there are over 20,000 complete text eBooks available online for free along with thousands more for sale.  Finding appropriate and useful texts can be difficult.  But in analyzing a number of online resource libraries a number have found that are useful for educational texts.  The National Academy Press ( has itself over 2000 texts available to be read online in a variety of areas, including education which has over 200 books alone.  One of the texts available through National Academy Press includes the educational best seller “How People Learn.” Other excellent books that have been used include CAST’s  ( “Learning to Read in the Computer Age” and “Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age” which are both available for purchase from bookstore or can be read online at no charge.  The online books from CAST also have the advantage of resource hyperlinks, extra activities, background research, and more.  It is even possible to find educational classics such as John Dewy’s “Democracy and Education” which can be downloaded in multiple formats from the Blackmask online library (  As college books stores are now including eBooks in their inventory it is wise to check on if the book already being used is available as an eBook.  The Follett Corporation ( which has over 600 campus bookstores, has an online eBook section with over fifty categories in MS Reader and Adobe formats (Follett 2003).


Improving Instructional Reading


Students may need instruction on effective ways to read and use electronic texts. In research that is currently underway preliminary findings indicate that students have never received any formal instruction on reading strategies that apply to electronic forms of text.  With some minor instruction on electronic text reading strategies students can make much more effective uses of the readings.  Providing or reminding students on using find features to search for text strings, or how to set up interactive dictionaries, and digital note taking strategies allows the reading experience to become much more productive.

The biggest complaint from students about using electronic text books is how they are limited to a specific location, usually not a comfortable chair in front of their computer screen, but with today’s laptop and hand held devices options this need no longer be true.  Using a memory storage card this author usually carries over fifty books on a handheld device, some for education and some for entertainment.


Depending on the format, location, and copyright issues of the electronic text, students may be directed to go to specific web locations (URL) to read the text.  Providing lists of such sites has drawbacks in that it is often difficult to effectively type in the URL addresses, better is to create online pages that provide hyperlinks to connect the student to the readings.  If you don’t hat the ability or resources to create your own web pages to direct students to the readings you can do much the same using other tools such as TrackStar (  TrackStar allows the instructor to create an annotated web pathway to take students to a series of online readings.  Working with other tools the student can do electronic notetaking, information organization, and gather citation information on the readings.  It is even possible to store online reading materials for off line access.  Using offline browsing tools student can select sites they are assigned to read and then their computer will download and hold them for later.  A similar tool called AvantGo ( works with handheld devices downloading the website to the handheld computer the next time the device is synced. 


In many ways it just makes sense to be using electronic texts, a large number of educators are already using web pages for course readings, the next progression of this concept then would be to using complete electronic text books either compiled from many sources or as a complete text eBook. The tools are available, the students have the technology, just create the reading list.


Online Resources:

National Academy Press: ( Has over 2000 books online to be read free, over 200 on education alone including How People Learn.

ASCD Full-Text Books: ( Has six complete books on education and educational issues.

National Institute for Literacy: (
Online books on reading, including Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read.

CAST: ( has two excellent technology and education books: Learning to Read in the Computer Age and the new Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age.

Blackmask ( An online free library which has an education that contains Democracy and Education by John Dewey.

TrackStar:  a tool which can be used to organize and annotate web sites for use in lessons.

NoteStar: ( An online tool that allows students to do online research including note taking and organization and automatic citation information gathering.

AvantGo ( An online service that allows the selection of web sites to be downloaded from the web to hand devices such as PalmOS device, PocketPC, or next-generation phone.




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Toner, E. (1998). “Tax Break, State Priorities Debated.”  The State News

U.S. Census Bureau (2001). “Home computers and Internet use in the United States: August 2000.” Retrieved April 2003 from .

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Project Gutenberg (2001) Project Gutenberg Official Home Site.  Available online at