By George Cole

New Sony Pocket e-bookNew Sony Pocket e-bookHow do you like your books - dead trees or digital?  Printed books are being challenged by a new generation of electronic books - e-books. On paper (no pun intended), e-books have advantages over print, as well as much educational potential. E-book readers - like the Sony Reader and Irex Technologies’ Iliad (reviews below) - can store thousands of books so, in theory, it’s goodbye to students carting around back-breaking sets of books in their rucksacks.

What is more, the latest e-book readers use electronic ink (e-ink) displays. These offer better contrast than LCD screens and are less power hungry, because they don’t require a backlight. This means batteries can be made smaller and lighter – and they last much longer.

And there’s more. An e-book can offer multimedia content in the form of text, pictures and audio; font sizes and types can be changed, content can be hyperlinked, and by connecting an e-book reader up to a computer, users can download e-books from online stores or import content (such as JPEGs and MP3 files). Paper books can soon go out of date and it can be years before they are updated, whereas, e-books can be updated regularly, if the publisher chooses to do so.

So it time for schools to throw out their paper books and embrace the e-book revolution? The answer is: not yet. While e-books and e-book readers offer many potential benefits, they also have a number of disadvantages when compared with the dead-trees version.

Common formats still to be agreed

For a start, the hardware is not cheap – dedicated e-book reader prices start from around £200. The prices of e-books vary considerably, with the digital version sometimes selling for more than the paper version. If you lose a paperback on a train, it’s a pain; lose your e-book reader and that’s a very expensive mistake. Another issue is the wide range of incompatible e-book formats out there, which means that if you choose the "wrong" e-book reader, you could end up with little to read on it. Although there is now an open e-book standard (called EPUB), too many e-book readers still use too many different e-book formats.

And then there’s the issue of digital rights management (DRM) technology, which is used to prevent e-book users from copying or sharing their e-books. Most DRM systems are so draconian that you can’t even make a back-up copy. In the US, retailer Amazon caused a stir when it deleted copies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from its e-book reader Kindle (not yet launched in the UK). Kindle owners, who had legitimately purchased the book, found that it had been removed by Amazon (via wireless access), because the company did not own the publishing rights. Such acts show how little control users of e-books have over the copies they “own”. Another issue is the availability of e-books. Although there are now thousands of e-book titles, the number doesn’t come close to the vast number of titles available in printed form.

This is not a simple "paper versus digital" argument. Peter Blanchard, founder and managing director of says: “The e-book will never replace the beautifully bound first edition or the coffee table art book, but e-books are more portable – you can go anywhere with your own library and even pop into an internet cafe and top up your library.”

Sally McKeownSally McKeown, an educational consultant and freelance writer, says: “Using an electronic book is a different experience from reading a paper book. It can be more interactive and easier to read for people with dyslexia, because you can change the font size. It will be even better when users can change the colour of the pages too.” But she adds that: “At the moment, e-book readers are clunky, and it’s a bit like the early days of mobile phones. But they will get thinner and sleeker and cheaper.”

John ConnellWhile there may be some way to go, John Connell, education consultant and architect of Scotland's GLOW national education network, is confident that e-books will be good for learning. Currently education business development manager for Cisco across emerging markets, he has already raised the issue on his respected blog. “If education is to embrace this technology, it needs to be as open as possible," he warns. "Schools will not want to be tied to one e-book provider.

“A major benefit of an e-book reader is the sheer volume of books it can hold and the ease of access it offers to a wide range of book types.”

“I definitely see a future for e-books in education, once they have sorted out issues such as providing access to a wide range of resources and developing a viable education business plan. I don’t think it’s going to mean the demise of the traditional book, but e-books will certainly be very useful in schools and beyond.”

George ColeGeorge Cole is a freelance journalist who writes about technology and learning. He is also the author of The Last Miles, a book about the jazz musician Miles Davis, and runs The Last Miles website

More information

Sony Reader page
Waterstones e-book page

Sally McKeown is the author of Screens and Pages, which includes a section on e-books. Sally is also presenting a seminar at the BETT Show 2010, which looks at e-books and other forms of reading technology, on Wednesday 13 January 2010 at 10:45 in Seminar Room P11.

John Connell's blog

Review - Sony PRS-505 e-book Reader (£199)

Sony PRS-505 e-bookSony PRS-505 e-bookIt’s taken us months to get our hands on the PRS-505 and now, Sony has just launched two new versions, the Pocket Edition and Touch Edition, so the chances are you’ll be able to get this at a discounted price. Even so, the technology and the user experience remains essentially the same for both old and new models. The Reader is about the same size as a paperback, but is just 8mm deep and weighs 260 grams. It has enough internal memory to store up to 160 books, and if you use a 16GB memory card, you can store another 13,000... First impressions are good – it looks stylish. The six-inch screen is clear and bright, and reading text isn’t a problem, even when sunlight is shining on the screen. You can bookmark pages, jump ten pages in either direction with just the touch of a button, or type a page number for instant access. The battery is designed to last for around 7,000 “page turns” (when a new page is displayed on the screen)

But there are some downsides. Unless you purchase an optional mains charger, you have to use a USB cable connected to your computer - and it takes four hours to charge the battery; the software (which is used for importing new e-books and content) only works with Windows PCs and you’re currently limited to buying e-books from Waterstones’ online store. Although Sony has a US e-book store with many more titles (and often at cheaper prices), UK users are barred from accessing it.
You can enlarge the font size, but if you wear strong reading glasses, you still can’t read the text without your spectacles.  It also takes a couple of seconds to display each new page and that can be frustrating. Black and white graphic images look crude too. The Sony Reader isn’t bad, but it will have to become much cheaper and Sony will have to iron out a few wrinkles before it becomes a real contender for the classroom.

Sony Reader ratings (out of 5)

Fitness for purpose  3
Ease of use              3     
Features                   3        
Quality                     4
Value for money      3


Review - Irex Technologies Ilead Book Edition (£449)

Irex's ILead Book EditionIrex's ILead Book EditionThe ILead Book Edition is a cut-down version of the Ilead Reader, which includes Wi-Fi wireless technology. The Ilead Book Edition is the size of a large paperback and its makers say it enables you to: “fit an entire library in your pocket” – but you’d need extremely large pockets for this device. In fact, the Ilead Book Edition looks and feels more like a Tablet PC and is operated by a stylus and touchscreen. You can quickly access books, newspapers, documents and notes by pressing one of four buttons at the bottom of the screen, and then use the stylus to select the item(s) you want.

The touch technology is a little temperamental (you sometimes have to tap the stylus a few times to get a response), and I suspect some students would get a little impatient with the user interface. You can also make handwritten notes and drawings, and the font size can be changed (although still not large enough for my eyes). It comes preloaded with 50 classic book titles (the usual suspects – Dickens, Austen, etc) and you can purchase more from the Mobibook website.

Its internal memory can store up to 120 books, but if you used the expanded memory option to the max, you could increase this number to 40,000. “Turning” a page involves pulling a thin metal bar on the left of the e-book reader, or using the stylus to select a page number. It takes around three seconds to display a new page. The screen is not as paper-white as the Sony Reader, but the text is clear. The downsides to this device are its price, size and slow boot-up time, and so in its current form, the Iliad Book Edition is not something you’d want to use in a classroom.

Iliad Book Edition ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose  2
Ease of use              2
Features                  3
Quality                     3
Value for money      2

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