Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Beyond the Gutenberg Press: Evaluation of texts for the electronic age

Carol Newton-Smith
Business Library

Deborah Ingram
Faculties of Economics and Commerce, Education & Law
The University of Western Australia
    Textbooks are an important part of a student's learning experience and can be a core component in student self-directed learning. Textbooks gather together information and data, and provide facts and concepts. Teachers are constantly looking for good textbooks. Decisions about textbooks are influenced by a variety of factors and can only be made in the light of each learning context, but there are some established criteria which can assist decision making.

    The advent of the electronic age has created additional issues to be considered. What is the value of web sites that support text books with quizzes, chat rooms, bulletin boards and hyperlinks to other sites? What advantages and disadvantages do electronic texts have to offer? What are the copyright issues associated with making electronic texts available to your students?

    This paper has been written from the perspective of a librarian and an instructional designer who provide support to academics in the development of instructional material. Textbook selection is one aspect we are often asked to comment on. We will address the issues of whether to use a textbook, what sort of textbook to use, print or electronic, what to consider when choosing a textbook, what alternatives there are to textbooks and student considerations in relation to textbooks.

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Textbooks are a core element of education systems throughout the world (Altbach, 1989) yet, the way in which textbooks are selected and used by lecturers and the needs and approaches of students to textbooks has not received a lot of attention from education researchers or academics (Cavanagh, 1986). The progress of research into text quality has been slow (Britton, Van Dusen, Gulgoez, & Glynn, 1989).While the selection of textbooks is an important factor in the success of course development (Brigham, 1992), teachers use intuitive criteria rather than explicit criteria when selecting textbooks (Bond, 1992).

In this paper, we will address the issues of whether to use a textbook, what sort of textbook to use, what to consider when choosing a textbook, what alternatives there are to textbooks and student considerations in relation to textbooks.

Should you use a textbook?

Johnson (1990, cited in Dorsing, 1997) lists a number of advantages and disadvantages of textbooks including the following.

  • Textbooks provide students with uniform sources of basic information
  • Textbooks contain an organised, sequential approach to the study of a subject
  • Textbooks include pertinent illustrations, graphs, maps and diagrams
  • Textbooks present a large amount of information efficiently
  • Textbooks reduce the in-class time needed for integrating content, allowing time for application, analysis, and problem solving.
  • Time is needed to select good textbooks.
  • Textbooks become outdated.
  • Teachers can rely on textbooks as the only source of content.
  • Teachers can let the textbook dictate the unit objectives.
  • An appropriate textbook may not be available.
  • Different textbooks may suit different learning styles.

What is a textbook?

A textbook has been defined as "a book used by students as a standard work for a particular branch of study" (Delbridge, Bernard, Blair, Peters & Butler, 1991), " a book used in the study of a subject: as a: one containing a presentation of the principles of a subject b: a literary work relevant to the subject" (Miriam-Webster, 1999), "a book used in schools and colleges for the formal study of a subject" (The American Heritage, 1996) and as "a book with wider spaces between the lines, to give room for notes" (Webster , 1996)! Thus the purpose of a textbook is clearly for use by students for their study of a particular subject in an educational setting. The textbook contains standard work, principles or literary material relevant to the subject to be studied and Webster's definition evidences an expectation that the textbook will be annotated in some way or form.

What, however, is the physical form of a textbook? While traditionally we may consider it to be a published book, is this changing? Orlandi (1998) distinguishes between "the text as a conceptual entity, that which exists in the mind of the author, or of the reader" and the material representation or physical entity of the text (p. 181). Pre-Guttenberg, students studied manuscripts as textbooks, today they study printed volumes, tomorrow will they study e-textbooks?

Electronic texts

Siegal and Sousa (1994) state that "the era of the printed textbook is ending" and that "computers are better than books in everyway" (p. 49). They argue that print is static, passive and unable to fulfil its instructional goal while computers are able to provide texts, pictures, animation, video and sound as well as interactive capability, the ability to withhold, reorganise and search for information and deliver feedback to students about their responses!

Ingram (1999) states that "in the shift to OnLine learning, assumptions are being made that working with print information is a passive activity with little learner control or engagement and that OnLine learning environments are active with greater learner control and engagement" (p. 8). She argues that the cognitive quality involved in "interaction" with a printed text can be more conducive to learning than that entailed in an "interactive" electronic environment.

Drawing any firm conclusion from the literature about the relative advantages of print and electronic medium is difficult because of the restricted choices made in many of the experimental designs of previous research (Helander, 1984 #2). Table 1 provides an overview of some of the advantages of each medium that may be useful to consider when making a choice between a print and an electronic textbook.

Table 1: Advantages of print and online media
(after Smith, 1989; Muter, 1991; Hartley, 1994; Levanthal, 1993; Egan, 1989; McNight, 1990)

Advantages of the print medium Advantages of the electronic medium
Faster to read. Speed may depend on quality of VDU - as these improve the differences possibly be insignificant especially for short passages of text. It may be an advantage that that students read slower.
Information read more accurately. Information can be chunked into digestible sections.
Locate information more quickly when inference or less precise terminology is being used. Locate information quickly when using precise terminology.
Information is static. Information can be dynamic.
Easier to flip or skim through and to make side-by-side comparisons. Easier to navigate. Possible to make links and cross-references. Can head off on individual tangents.

Most "electronic" texts accessed by the authors were digitalised versions of the print text with little use being made of the particular capabilities afforded by the web. Some interesting examples, however, were found. The Perseus Project [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/] is an example of a project that is exploring new ways of presenting complex resources for electronic publication. It contains a variety of electronic resources including texts that can be accessed in English or the original language and easily swapped between the two as well as a comprehensive search capability. The Interactive International Trade program [http://www.econs.ecel.uwa.edu.au/econs/units/203/203.htm] is a "text" in which the author has capitalised on the animation capability of the online environment to direct the learner's attention to the important parts of economic models (graphs) and to illustrate the processes that needs to be understood.

Web supported texts

Some texts are now accompanied by Web sites that have interactive components, chat rooms, quizzes etc (see, for example, such texts as those produced by John Wiley Publishers, e.g., [http://www.johnwiley.com.au/tertiary/eco/] which have supplementary material for students and resources such as test banks and PowerPoint presentations for teachers). Whether these are included as part of the "textbook" will depend on the overall aims and objectives of your course.

Web sites can provide updated and current resources and material thus overcoming the limitations of printed textbooks in this respect. The provision of PowerPoint presentations, test banks and other instructional resources for teachers would encourage teachers to use the textbook to determine unit objectives. The role of the teacher as an agent for transforming knowledge, and for helping their students interpret and construct their own knowledge is replaced by such material with the role of a "passive substation that relays performed messages to them" (Biggs, 1999, p. 99).

If one of the objectives of using a textbook is to give clear boundaries to a subject area then a web site has clear disadvantages as it is very easy for students to get lost in hyperspace.

What should you consider when choosing a textbook?

A fundamental issue to consider when choosing a textbook, and when deciding whether to use print or electronic texts, is the extent to which the textbook will assist your students to meet the objectives of the unit. Let the unit objectives dictate the textbook, not the textbook dictate the objectives! Textbooks cannot, and should not, define the curriculum. Shutes and Petersen (1994) consider texts to be indifferent to educational goals, unselective, ignorant of instructional pace, rarely reflective of current learning research, divorced from real-world usage, unable to reflect local concerns and neglectful of interdisciplinarity .

The students' reading level and motivation

Given the university student selection and admission policies, students could reasonably be expected to be efficient and effective readers. Remember, however, there will always be a variety of reading rates and ability to comprehend texts. Remind students at the beginning of the semester of Student Support Services in your university that can assist them if efficient and effective academic reading is a problem.

The difficulty of the text

Readability or difficulty levels of texts can be determined by readability formulas (see, for example, Flesch, 1950). However, these do not take into account the conceptual level and the information density of the material or the writing style of the material. Vachon and Haney (1991, cited in Newton, 1992) developed a measure for the Level of Abstraction to incorporate the effect of non-concrete "concepts, functional relationships, inferences and / or idealised measures" that are considered more demanding (p. 117). Newton (1992) found a significant correlation between the two measures and concluded that, for a busy teacher, "simply counting the polysyllabic words may be an adequate substitute for either procedure" (p. 119).

In the case of first year students and others who are novices to the area, you will need to remember that they are not familiar with the key terms and concepts in the discipline and this will need to be allowed for in judging the difficulty of the text.

Your expectations and student workload

Your expectations or instructional demands need to be considered in relation to the total student workload (8 - 10 hours including contact time for your unit).

The time spent in reading can roughly be determined by multiplying the number of pages by the number of words per page and dividing this by the reading speed of the student. For example, a text may have 35 pages in one chapter and 500 words per page. At an average speed of 250 words per minute, it will take a student 70 minutes to read that chapter (just reading the words).

Remember though that the more difficult the text is, the longer it will take to comprehend. Reading speed will slow down when the material is difficult to process. Studying instructions or diagrams will take extra time depending on their complexity. Thinking about the concepts, making notes and discussing ideas from the text with peers will also take time. If the material is new to the student, they will have to allow extra time for looking up the meaning of key terms they don't understand and trying to master the new concepts before they can think about them.

You will also want students to research, plan and write assignments and to do other instructional activities outside the contact time.

What alternatives are there to using a commercial textbooks?

For many courses an appropriate textbook is not available. Teachers have the choice of writing their own textbook, putting together a collection of readings or developing a web site or resources to support their students' learning.

Academia appears to have somewhat changed culture on writing textbooks. In 1991, Blum suggested that it may be academic suicide for an academic without tenure to publish a textbook, yet in the year 2000 many Australian universities are actively encouraging lecturers to make material available electronically in order to facilitate flexible delivery of material. These web sites are often a substitute for textbooks or one of the alternatives, a list of readings which are often bound together with the lecturer's own notes as a reader which can be given or sold to students as an alternative to one textbook. Apart from the technical considerations of developing a collection of readings available in electronic form the copyright issues make this area quite complex. The Australian Copyright Council have a web site [http://www.copyright.org.au] which provides a useful source of information on copyright. In particular their publication on "Creating web sites & publishing on the Internet" provides useful information on how to protect your own material with a copyright statement. A clear example of a copyright notice is available on the QANTM Copyright Page [http://www.qantm.com.au/copyright/index.html]. QANTM provides these web pages as a service to the multimedia and online industry and multimedia users. They aim to provide practical information to help Australian developers, producers, content creators and others understand copyright issues.

Issues related to provision of electronic material created by others are more complex than the provision of print material, because educational institutions have special provisions to photocopy under the CAL license. The CAL license does not cover electronic versions of publications and special care needs to be taken with, for example, the provision of links to material published by other authors on other sites. Queensland University of Technology has written a useful copyright guide for the Australian university context [http://www.tals.dis.qut.edu.au/development/copyright/21.htm]. The page is written for their lecturers who are considering creating web sites and goes into detail about the general rules to observe. The resources of the Internet are protected by copyright and it is ethical and wise to be careful what you copy to your site. It is usually more appropriate to provide students with a link to a useful site than to copy the material down. You must also ensure that the links indicate clearly that the reader is going to another site and that it cannot be misconstrued that the information is part of your site or copyright will be infringed.

This copyright situation will change when the Copyright Amendment (Digital Agenda) Bill has been passed. For those interested in the likely changes, the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs has handed down a report on the Bill [http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/laca/digitalagenda/contents.htm].

Student considerations

Use and cost of the text

It is important that the text chosen is to be substantially used by the student for the unit. If you don't expect to be using over 50% of the text as an integral part of the course, then you may need to consider another text that is more useful to your purposes. You will also need to weigh up the amount of use you expect the student to make of the text against the cost of the text. A text that will be useful across several units will make it a valuable investment for students. Don't expect students to buy a text just because it is a useful reference. If it is not going to be an integral part of their study material suggest it as a highly recommended reference that they may choose to invest in because of its usefulness to them in the long term.

Text and edition availability

An excellent textbook that is out of print or that is delayed in delivery is a frustration for everyone. Check the availability of the textbook with the bookshop staff. Check also that the edition hasn't changed from the text that you have reviewed. A copy of an out of print textbook is better placed in the library as a reference than made an essential text.

Student's experience of texts

Factors which can impact on a student's experience of a text include such factors as their personal circumstances, textual features such as advanced organisers, visual stimuli, in-text activities, the reading and study orientation of the student, and their written interaction with the text (Bergh, van Wyk, Lemmer, van der Linde and van Niekerk, 1996). Appendix 2 contains helpful features within texts themselves that support students' experience of their texts.


Choices about textbooks need to be guided by pedagogical considerations. "What will best support and enable my students to achieve the unit objectives I have set?" is suggested as a guiding principle in most decisions about textbooks.

Society and universities are still in the early days of electronic textbook development and the majority of electronic texts found by the authors were print textbooks digitalised for online delivery. In most cases, little advantage has been taken of the capabilities of the electronic medium itself.

"The "Gutenberg galaxy" still exists and "typographical" man [and woman!] is still reading his [and her] way around it" (Darnton, 1999). While we need to consider the nature of the external presentation of information to our students, our primary concern still needs to rest with the quality of the mental processes that they engage in as they work with that information regardless of its form of presentation.

A list of relevant websites has been included in Appendix 3.


Altbach, P. G. (1989). Textbooks: The international dimension. Chinese University of Hong Kong Education Journal, 17(2), 114-127.

Bergh, A., van Wyk, N., Lemmer, E., van der Linde, N., and van Niekerk, P. (1996). Distance learners and their experience of text. South African Journal of Higher Education, 10(2), 169-174.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham, UK: SRHE and Open University Press.

Blum, D. E. (1991). Authors, publishers seek to raise quality and status of the college textbook. Chronicle of Higher Education, (31 July), A11-A12.

Bond, P. R. J. (1992). Evaluation and selection of textbooks: A subject specific perspective. Unpublished masters thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Brigham, D. E. (1992). Factors affecting the development of distance education courses. Distance Education, 13(2), 169-192.

Britton, B. K., Van Dusen, L., Gulgoez, S., & Glynn, S. M. (1989). Instructional texts rewritten by five expert teams: Revisions and retention improvements. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(2), 226-239.

Cavanagh, A. K. (1986). Textbooks used in materials science and materials engineering courses in Victorian tertiary institutions, 1970-1984. Unpublished masters thesis, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

Cran, G. R. (Ed.). (1997, September). The Perseus Project. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/ [Accessed 30 Jan 2000].

Darnton, R. (1999, March 18). The new age of the book. The New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/ (search under "Darnton" in the Archives). [Accessed 30 Jan 2000].

Delbridge, A., Bernard, J. R. L., Blair, D., Peters, P., & Butler, S. (Eds). (1991). The Macquarie Dictionary. NSW, Australia: The Macquarie Library Ltd.

Dillon, A. (1994). Designing usable electronic text. London: Taylor & Francis.

Dorsing, D. (1997). Textbook selection and use. APEO Faculty Manual (Ch 6). Asia Pacific Education Office, Laguna Hills, CA. http://www.apeo.org/schools/faculty/chp6.htm [Accessed 30 Jan 2000].

Egan, D., Remde, J., Landauer, T., Lochbaum, C., & Gomez, L. (1989). Behavioural evaluation and anlysis of a hypertext browser. Paper presented at the Proceedings of CHI'89, New York.

Flesch, R. (1950). Measuring the Level of Abstraction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 34, 384-390.

Ingram, D. M. (1999, June 4). Relocating learning online. Unpublished paper submitted as a part of course requirements for 12394 Ed761 Technology and Instructional Design, Curtin University of Technology at Perth, Western Australia.

Helander, M. G., Biollingsley, P. A., & Schurick, J. M. (1984). An evaluation of human factors research on visual display terminals in the workplace. In F. Muckler (Ed.), Human Factos Review (pp. 55-129). Santa Monica CA: Human Factos Society.

Levanthal, L., Teasley, B., Instone, K., Rohlman, D., & Farhat, J. (1993). Sleuthing in HyperHolmes: An evaluation of using hypertext versus a book to answer questions. Behaviour and Information Technology, 12(3), 149-64.

McNight, C., Dillon, A., & Richardson, J. (1990). A comparison of linear and hypertext formats in information retrieval. In R. McAleese & C. Green (Eds.), Hypertext: State of the art (pp. 10-19). Oxford: Intellect.

Miriam-Webster, Incorporated (1999). WWWebster-Online Dictionary-Thesaurus. http://www.m-w.com/

Muter, P., & Maurutto, P. (1991). Reading and skimming from computer screens and books: The paperless office revisited? Behaviour and Information Technology, 10(4), 501-8.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1996, 1992). Houghton Mifflin Company.

Newton, D. P. (1992). The level of abstraction of textual materials: A new and an old measure compared. Journal of Research in Reading, 15(2), 117-119.

Orlandi, T. (1998). From the book to the electronic edition of literary texts. In I. Butterworth (Ed.), The impact of electronic publishing on the academic community. London: Portland Press Ltd.

Shutes, R., & Petersen, S. (1994). Seven reasons why textbooks cannot make a curriculum. NASSP Bulletin, 78(565), 11-20.

Siegel, M. A., & Sousa, G. A. (1994). Inventing the virtual textbook: Changing the nature of schooling. Educational Technology, 34(7), 49-54.

Smith, A., & Savory, M. (1989). Effects and after-effects of working at a VDU: investigation of the influence of personal variables. In E. D. Megaw (Ed.), Contemporary Ergonomics. London: Taylor and Francis.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1996, 1998). MICRA, Inc.

Appendix 1: Useful questions to ask

What sort of textbook should you use, print or electronic?

What should you consider when choosing a textbook?

Student considerations

Appendix 2: Helpful features in texts

Some helpful features to look for in a text are

Appendix 3: Relevant Web Sites

Examples of textbooks with supporting web sites

John Wiley Publishers. http://www.johnwiley.com.au/tertiary/ e.g., micro and macroeconomics texts, http://www.johnwiley.com.au/tertiary/eco/

"Electronic" textbook sites

Pearson Custom Publishing [http://www.pearsoncustom.com/] will assist you in creating your own electronic textbook, e.g. Management by Garry Dessler, http://www.pearsoncustom.com/link/textlink/olb4/

The Perseus Project. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/ [Accessed 30 Jan 2000].

The Interactive International Trade program. http://www.econs.ecel.uwa.edu.au/econs/units/203/203.htm

eMedicine.com (medical textbooks for health professionals) http://www.emedicine.com/

Medical Microbiology (4th edition) entirely online

Biophysics Online Textbook http://biosci.umn.edu/biophys/OLTB/Textbook.html

Publishers' resources

The McGraw-Hill Company http://www.mcgraw-hill.com/ e.g., Online Supercentre for Accounting Resources http://www.mhhe.com/business/accounting/oscar/


The Australian Copyright Council web site http://www.copyright.org.au

The QANTM Copyright Page http://www.qantm.com.au/copyright/index.html

The Copyright Amendment (Digital Agenda) Bill - a report. http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/laca/digitalagenda/contents.htm

A useful copyright guide for the Australian university context written by Queensland University of Technology http://www.tals.dis.qut.edu.au/development/copyright/21.htm

Other sites of interest

The Online Books Page http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/

MS, Barnes and Noble team on e-books (aims to make every book available electronically) http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/stories/news/0,4586,2417896,00.html

Carol Newton-Smith [cnsmith@library.uwa.edu.au] is the Business Librarian at the University of Western Australia. She is responsible for library services to the Faculty of Economics and Commerce. Her research interests are in the use of technology to enhance academic research and teaching.

Deborah Ingram [dingram@ecel.uwa.edu.au] is currently Instructional Designer for the Faculties of Economics and Commerce, Education and Law at the University of Western Australia. Her research interests lie in the area of instructional design and technology, particularly in the area of teaching and learning in an online environment.

Please cite as: Newton-Smith, C. and Ingram, D. (2000). Beyond the Gutenberg Press: Evaluation of texts for the electronic age. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/newton-smith.html

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