Cover of our ebook.

Over the next 10 days or so, my graduate course in elearning development will be working through a unit on rapid instructional design. Capitalizing on the advances in mobile learning, they will be using an ebook and Twitter. This piggybacks on a unit I conducted with one of my online graduate teacher education courses this past summer.

Learning from past experiences

Unfortunately, my experiments with ebooks this past fall did not go well. I spent a considerable amount of time writing an ebook for our unit on virtual schooling and mobile learning with plans to publish to ePub through Sigil. Unfortunately, it failed miserably. None of the students were able to download and load the book onto their devices — on any of the devices.  I’m not sure what the problem was completely.  However, I had students who used iPhones, iPod Touches, Nooks, Androids, and none of them worked. Even on the desktops computers Adobe Digital Editions gave an error.

After a lot of frustrations, I eventually created a small 5.5 inch by 8.5 inch PDF from Microsoft Word.  I was considerably disappointed. I had put way too much faith in the technologies to simply “just work.” All of this was prior to the announcement of iBooks Author by Apple, too.

And now …

Learning from my prior frustration, I tried to accomplish many of the things I teach my students as instructional designers during a front-end analysis.  I asked the students about the types of devices they owned and had access to.  I created some prototypes and had colleagues test these. (I know. How appropriate for a unit discussing rapid prototyping?)

I found that to cover my bases (and just in case), I needed to create 4 versions of the ebook: an iBooks Author version, an ePub version, a mobi version, and a PDF. I originally created 5 versions (an additional PDF out of iBooks Author) that I found to be unnecessary, since it did not render the special interactions separately. The iBooks Author version was exported out to .ibooks format and only works for iPad. The ePub version works for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch  versions with iBooks; and it also works for Android. The mobi version works for Kindle and the Kindle app. The PDF works for everybody and is for just in case.

How they were created

  1. The .ibooks version for iPad was created in iBooks Author and exported as the iBooks format (.ibooks).
  2. The ePub file was created in Apple Pages and exported out as an ePub (.epub) format. The table of contents (TOC) and the chapter breaks are not as robustly formatted as I would have liked.
  3. The mobi file was created in Apple Pages and exported out as an ePub (.epub) format. Then the ePub file was converted to a .Mobi file, which is a variant on the Kindle file format, by Calibre. The table of contents (TOC) and the chapter breaks are not as robustly formatted as I would have liked.
  4. The PDF was created in Apple Pages and exported out as a PDF file. The iBooks Author described above will also export out as PDF and retains the strong page formatting; however, it does not separate any of the interactive graphics, such as image galleries, so there was very little reason to use its PDF.

My thoughts

As you can read from the descriptions, some files work with some devices. Other formats work with other devices.  I’m pretty sure that only one of my students has an iPad and will be able to access the .ibooks version.  I am not satisfied with the ePub format either. With some additional time, I would do some post processing on the ePub format by taking it through Word, HTML, Sigil, and then probably Calibre to clean up the chapter breaks and table of contents, which I consider to be a little bit of a mess right now.

1. iBooks isn’t enough

I have found iBooks Author to be easy to use. Though I believe the criticism for Apple and iBooks Author is warranted, I believe it is actually misaligned and misdirected. I believe that iBooks Author was an “easy way out” for Apple. Following their long line of controlling experience by controlling hardware and software, Apple has created a product that I believe misses broad scale applicability of masses, which is what I believed iPod, iPhone, and iPod Touch to be.

I am inclined to agree with Wes Fryer  that Apple needed to have included ePub as an option to export out of iBooks Author.  (I also learned that Pages could use an option to export out as HTML, too.) iBooks Author right now only works with iPad and iBooks. I need more options, and my students do, too.

2. Medium impacted the message

The file formats impacted my instructional strategies and media. Because I knew that I was going to have to create 4 versions of this instruction, I purposely did not include some of the “fancier” interactions that iBooks Author had to offer, such as the knowledge check review questions and the Keynote slideshows. These would not work in the ePud, mobi, and PDF versions, so I did not want to create an inequitable version of the ebook. (I have a feel this will become a bigger issue soon. I haven’t heard conversations about equitable versions of interactive texts for vision impaired individuals yet.)

So, you might ask why didn’t I create just one format file, the PDF version. Well, I knowingly wanted to see what was possible with iBooks Author, ePub, and ebooks in general. As a researcher, teacher, and recommender of applications and strategies, I feel like I need to be able to intelligently speak to the capabilities of mobile learning and ebook development.  When I work with students, faculty members, teachers, and school districts, I need to be able to first-hand discuss where the challenges with mobile teaching and learning and ebooks are. PDF is approximate 20 years old. It doesn’t, however, allow us to take advantage of highlighting, notes, bookmarking, and dictionaries from inside the mobile devices.

I also now have a really good sense of what the workflow for ebook development to meet our students’ needs could be.

3. Bloat-ware?

I also feel that iBooks Author creates somewhat of “bloat-ware,” where they do not have to be concerned about file management.  I was utterly surprised by the file sizes of the two iBooks I downloaded created by Pearson. These file sizes were huge and required a long time to download on campus. At home, I can only imagine how long. My small ebook for class is about 7.4 Mb, and includes few interactions and no videos.

We can do better

I absolutely believe we can do better creating ebooks that are usable, functional, engaging, and responsibly small. (Notice, I didn’t say feasible. That’s a different conversation altogether.) The variety of devices individuals and students own demands we respect where our students coming from. Admittedly, I’m on the front end on creating ebooks for my students. But it’s going to increase. There is evidence from Amazon directly that they have sold more ebooks than paperbacks. Other programs for textbooks are providing momentum, too. Dr. David Wiley and the folks in Utah are committed for open education textbooks across the state.

What are your thoughts about ebooks. Is ease in production and committing to a single device a strategy that’s long term?

Or do we just wait for someone to create the conversion utility for iBooks to ePub?

About Michael M Grant

Dr. Michael M. Grant is a passionate professor, researcher, and consultant. He works with faculty members, schools and universities, and districts to integrate technology meaningfully and improve teaching and learning. When 140 characters just won't work, then he blogs here at Viral-Notebook.com. He has a beautiful wife and three equally beautiful daughters, who will change the world.

6 Thoughts on “eBooks & mlearning aren’t as easy as iBooks Author. iPad-only isn’t an option for my students.

  1. Great post Michael! This is the first one I’ve read where someone steps through the complexity of mobile publishing. What a mess! I agree and think Apple missed the boat on making a more universal format, at least have the epub option. Thanks for the great and timely post.

    • Thanks, David, for stopping by and leaving a comment. I had been working on this post for a while, given the troubles I had last fall. Your thoughts are always welcome.

  2. Good article. I teach Multimedia Design at a community college. Given the amount of rich media assets I would want in my digital books, I think designing for the web, i.e. HTML 5, CSS, Javascript might be the way to go, then process the content through Phone Gap to a native app (like Martha Steward Mag). Her team uses InDesign by the way to design the experience.

    Interaction needs to be programmed into a linear narrative. I don’t think the ePub or iBook format is up to it.

    I also wonder what format and size you made the video you embedded into your presentations. Did you optimize your sound for a mobile device? Media adds a huge punch of size so the output needs to be encoded targeting the mobile platforms.

    • Thanks, Dale, for stopping by and thanks for your comments. These are great thoughts. While I haven’t got to it yet, I plan to give InDesign a go to see what kind of ePub product it can produce. Also, I was reading a USAToday article about Inkling’s new pro service, as well as Red Staple and Folium Studio, both of which are cloud services. Red Staple looks to do the kind of things I would like with media, but the price tag makes a it a little undesirable with testing out for a single course/unit.

    • Also, Dale, as a follow up, in my ebook, I did not include vide and sound, because these couldn’t be rendered in the ePub or the PDF easily. I stuck with the image galleries. I do plan to test out another scenario soon, where I add in videos and some of the other interactions.

  3. Pingback: Blogging About Mobile Learning « Virtual School Meanderings

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