Improving Learning with eTextbooks
Alan R. Dennis Kelly O. McNamara Anastasia S. Morrone Joshua Plaskoff
Indiana University Mulligan Partners LLC Indiana University HighPoint Global LLC
eTextbooks offer the potential to change the way
faculty teach and students learn. One approach to
providing etextbooks enables faculty to custom tailor
traditional “flat” paper textbooks from major
publishers by embedding videos and annotating them
with comments. We conducted a lab study in which
participants read a chapter in a computer networking
book either in paper form, or using an etext system with
annotations and a video embedded by the faculty
member teaching the course using the book. We found
that participants who used the etexts scored
significantly higher on a test; the effect size was medium
(.55). Interesting, participants did not recognize that
they learned more and perceived that the paper book
better met their learning needs.
A new generation of students is arriving at
universities: the Millennials – students born from in the
1990s [1, 2]. This generation of “digital natives”
embraces new technologies and information sharing,
and they are astute networkers . But this is not just
about gadgets; Millennials have fused their social lives
and use of technology in ways that are new and
fundamentally different. They are characterized by: a)
use and fluency with multimedia; b) comfort with
expressing thoughts and feelings online; c)
collaboratively seeking and synthesizing information
and experiences; and d) co-designing learning
experiences personalized to individual needs and
preferences [3, 4].
Yet when they reach college, they are greeted with
paper textbooks – many pounds and many dollars’
worth of them – and approaches to learning that their
grandparents would recognize. These approaches to
learning do not meet their expectations and more
importantly do not take advantages of current
technological capabilities for digital communication,
something that Millennials have come to expect and
value. There is broad agreement that the move to
electronic textbooks is inevitable [5-7]; whether in two
years or 10 years, at some point, the paper textbook will
be a relic of the past.
So one key question is how can we use technology
to improve teaching and learning? In this paper, we
examine the use of one etext system called Courseload
which is in use at several dozen colleges and
universities. Prior research using this system has found
that students prefer it to paper textbooks [8, 9]. In this
paper, we examine how the use of this etext system
affects student learning.
2. Prior Theory and Research
There have been high expectations for leveraging
technology to improve education outcomes by
transforming textbooks from paper to electronic. Most
initiatives have taken one of two approaches. One
approach has been digitizing existing flat print books.
Most publishers now offer electronic versions of their
books (e.g., PDF), and several vendors have emerged to
sell these (e.g., VitalSource.com, Coursesmart.com,
CafeScribe.com). The Kindle and the iPad also create
opportunities to deliver these flat electronic books in
new hardware formats. There have been several
electronic textbook initiatives aimed at increasing the
implementation and deployment of these flat e-books
[e.g., 10]. These projects have met with a modicum of
success because they were designed to provide access to
a limited set of textbooks and materials. They offer
limited cost advantages, but little promise of leveraging
technology to improve learning outcomes.
Other projects have focused on completely
rethinking what a textbook is. These projects have
redesigned the “textbook” into a multimedia learning
resource [11-13]. Many of these approaches have shown
learning advantages but their high cost of production
make them hard to scale . These approaches may be
useful for large market textbooks (i.e., for freshman
courses) where their cost can be amortized over many
users , but their cost makes them unrealistic for most
traditionally sized courses. These projects are grand
undertakings that are not scalable; it is difficult to
rapidly deploy and integrate electronic materials using
this model of building new content for each new
In our work, we adopt a different approach from
these two. Research on the information technology has
shown that it is best to never build new systems unless
there is a clear competitive advantage to be gained [15,
16]. Individuals and organizations are better off buying
or re-using existing systems, even if they are not a
perfect fit. Innovation research has repeatedly shown
that firms that focus on producing the best technology
usually fail and are beaten by firms that focus on
producing cheaper technologies that are “good enough”
. There are more than 1 trillion pages of material on
the web , so for all but the most esoteric subjects,
useful “good enough” multimedia content already
exists, albeit scattered around the web.
Thus we believe the key to providing richer, more
engaging multimedia content in a scalable way is not to
create “ideal” new materials independent of the students
in a one-size fits all model, but rather to enable
instructors to easily find and embed existing content into
textbooks (and remove content) to tailor those books to
the needs of their students. That is, to enable instructors
to tailor their textbooks to the learning needs of their
students by finding the most appropriate “good enough”
resources on the Web and integrating them directly into
the textbook wherever they like.
The transformative aspect of information technology
is not just in the way it changes the nature of content,
but how it changes the way students and instructors
interact with the content and with each other. Our vision
for the rapid integration and deployment of electronic
texts and other materials is not grounded in the
traditional approach to developing new multimedia
electronic textbooks. Instead, we build on sociocultural
theories of learning [19-23] to exploit the social aspects
of information technology, to enable instructors and
students to tailor the learning experience to their needs,
to expand education beyond the classroom setting, and
to take advantage of Millennials’ comfort with
technology and their expectations for social
interactions, Our goal is to improve learning outcomes
while lowering costs and without requiring existing
textbooks to be rewritten.
Research suggests that the more students have the
opportunity to think about and apply what they are
learning, the greater the positive impact on learning as
measured both by self-reports and objective tests [24,
25]. Pedagogical approaches that utilize student-
centered active learning strategies as opposed to
traditional teacher-centered strategies have been found
to encourage greater cognitive effort on the part of
students that can result in increased student learning [25,
26]. Typically, this includes all subject-matter related
learning activities and experiences in which students are
actively thinking about and engaged in both inside and
outside the classroom . Experimental studies that
have compared the performance of students assigned to
classes taught using traditional methods and those using
methods that promote active learning have found that
students who are more actively involved in the learning
process have higher scores on objective tests [25, 28,
We believe that electronic teaching and learning can
improve learning in four distinct ways.
1) Electronic devices and the pervasiveness of
network access enable the use of much richer, more
engaging multimedia content than the traditional paper
book and enable the instructor to tailor that content to
the students’ learning needs. Providing multimedia
content with different types of resources in different
formats can help more students succeed [30, 31] because
instructors (and students) can tailor the learning
experiences to better fit students’ learning needs .
Mayer and Moreno  did extensive research on
multimedia learning and found that in general students
remembered material better if it was presented both
verbally and visually.
2) Electronic content with instructor annotations
creates new opportunities for instructors to
communicate with students as they experience the
textbook. Instructors can annotate electronic textbooks
with their comments and share those comments with
their students. These comments are scaffolding that can
provide guidance to students beyond the classroom
setting so that they focus their efforts on important
content . Instructors can augment the textbook with
their interpretation and views, making it easier for
students to understand and interpret the content.
Annotations also provide opportunities for instructors to
model expert practices by making their own practices
visible to students . The capability for students to
experience instructor advice and commentary that is
integrated with the reading of the electronic textbook
provides opportunities not easily possible with paper
textbooks that can improve learning .
3) Electronic content with student annotation
enhances student interest, comprehension, and critical
thinking. Learning is not a passive process where
students simply receive information, but an active
process in which students co-construct knowledge .
They build upon prior knowledge and experience as
they make sense of the textbook, revising their own
current understanding as they encounter new ideas and
information and as they test their current schema [36,
37]. Annotation of texts can make an important
contribution to both the cognitive and metacognitive
aspects of learning. Underlining and highlighting may
assist in recall [38, 39]. More complex annotation
strategies, such as summarizing, paraphrasing, finding
examples, and asking questions, contribute to
metacognitive monitoring and enhance learners’ self-
regulation, recall, and comprehension [38-40].
4) Electronic content with shared annotation as a
social medium enables students to communicate with
each other and instructors in ways that create new
opportunities for active learning. Social media have
been embraced by Millennials through Facebook, blogs,
and Twitter. Annotation becomes a social experience
when students can share those annotations and ask
questions of one another and their instructors directly
within the electronic textbook. When they share those
annotations with other members of the class, students
may feel more conceptual control . This also has the
potential to increase engagement and active learning by
inducing discussion and participation around the
intellectual content in the textbook.
This technology was tested over a three year period
at Indiana University [8, 9]. Most students (60%) said
they preferred the electronic textbook to a paper
textbook, but this choice varied dramatically from
course to course (min 36%, max 84%). Students were
significantly more likely to prefer e-textbooks when the
instructor actively used the e-textbook (e.g., added their
own annotations); student preferences were the lowest
in courses where the instructor viewed the textbook only
as a reference and made no use of it when teaching.
There were no gender differences. Students were more
likely to prefer e-textbooks in their second and
subsequent courses in which e-textbooks were used,
suggesting increased satisfaction as students became
more familiar with the technology.
This prior research was able to examine student
reactions to using the etext system, but did not examine
student learning because it did not compare a course
using paper textbooks to the same one using etextbooks.
So one unanswered question is whether etext technology
that provides these four capabilities to faculty and
students can affect student learning.
In this paper, we present the results of a controlled
laboratory experiment comparing students using paper
textbooks to students using this etextbook system. This
is an incomplete comparison of the etextbook system
because we did not examine students’ abilities to make
annotations or share those annotations with others
because of the short duration of the experiment.
Nonetheless, we believe that the use of the etext system
should improve student learning.
There were 56 participants, drawn from a general
business course taken by juniors. Four participants had
taken the course using the textbook used in this study
(see below), so they were eliminated from the analysis,
leaving 52 participants. Approximately 58% of the
participants were male. Participants were randomly
assigned to treatments.
Participants read the first chapter in a data
communications and networking textbook used in the
business school’s networking course and took a quiz on
the material. This course is taken by juniors and seniors
and has used etextbooks for three years. The six
participants scoring the highest grade on the quiz
received $50 (three from each treatment).
Half the participants (27) were given paper
photocopies of the chapter. The other half (25) used the
etext software on a desktop computer to read the same
chapter. The chapter used in this study contained the
same 13 annotations that the instructor teaching the
business school’s networking course provided to his
class when teaching the course. Most annotations
identified which sections were important and not
important, but one annotation contained a link to a four
minute YouTube video produced by Cisco Systems for
use in their Networking Academy. This video explained
how the five layers of the Internet Networking Model
work together to move messages across the Internet.
3.4. Dependent Variables
There were three dependent variables. The first was
the score on a quiz, used to measure participant’s
learning performance. There were 24 multiple choice
questions and one open-ended question designed to test
deeper understanding worth three points, for a total
possible score of 27 points. All questions were taken
from the Instructor’s Manual that accompanies the
textbook. The remaining two dependent variables were
participants’ perceptions measured using five-point
Likert scale questions on a post-session questionnaire.
They were: ease of use (5 questions, alpha=.75), and met
learning needs (5 questions, alpha=.86). See the
Appendix for the items.
3.5. Control Variables
We asked subjects their GPA. There were no
differences in mean self-reported GPA between
treatments and it was not significantly related to any
dependent variable, so it was omitted from the analyses.
There were no differences in the proportion of genders
between treatments and gender was not significantly
related to any dependent variable, so it was omitted from
the analyses. Likewise there were no differences in the
proportion of those who had and had not used the etext
system in a prior course. This too was not related to any
dependent variable and omitted from the analyses.
Participants first read the chapter either on paper or
via an etext for 35 minutes. Participants in the etext
treatment received instruction on how to use the
software prior to reading the chapter. Participants then
had 15 minutes to do the quiz. Finally, participants
answered post-session questionnaire.
Table 1 presents the results. Participants using the
etext performed significantly better than those using
paper textbooks (F(1,50)=4.14, p=.047). The effect size
is .55, which Cohen calls a “medium” sized effect.
Interestingly, participants perceived paper textbooks
to better meet their learning needs (F(1,50)=5.42,
p=.024). The effect size was medium (.70). There were
no differences in the perceptions of ease of use
Ease of Use
Table 1. Means and Standard Deviations
The use of the etext with annotations (instructor
commentary and one multimedia learning video)
improved participants’ learning, but, they perceived the
etext to be worse at meeting their learning needs. This
is an interesting split outcome, with participants not
immediately recognizing the value from using etexts.
First and foremost, it is encouraging that even a brief
use of this etext system that tested only two of the four
possible contributions to learning (instructor
annotations and multimedia) had an impact on student
learning. The pattern of learning was consistent for both
the multiple choice questions and the open ended
question, with those using the etext system performing
better on both types of questions (means of 14.04 vs.
12.41, and 1.40 vs. 0.56, respectively).
However, participants did not recognize these
learning effects. They perceived that the etext system
was not as effective at meeting their learning needs as
the paper textbook. There are at least two plausible
explanations for this finding. First, the software enables
students to highlight and make their own annotations in
the book. In this study, we did not show students how
to highlight or take notes, so none did. In contrast, we
noticed that about a third the students using paper
textbooks made some notes on the paper copies,
although most of this was underlining (i.e.,
highlighting). It is possible that that the lack of
highlighting and annotating resulting the lower opinions
of the etext software.
An alternative explanation is that it takes time for
participants to effectively use any new technology after
it is initially adopted; there is a learning curve [42, 43]
When individuals adopt a new technology, they must
change their work processes (learning processes in our
case), so initial performance and satisfaction after the
introduction of a new technology often drop as
individuals adapt their old work processes to effectively
use the technology. Over time, performance and
satisfaction gradually improve as “practice makes
perfect” [43, p. 753]. Thus measuring performance and
perceptions the first time new technology is employed
may lead one to conclude that its use impairs
performance and satisfaction, when in fact improved
performance and satisfaction may only emerge after the
user has employed it over time and moved down the
learning curve [44, 45].
This study measured performance and satisfaction
after only 35 minutes of use while participants were still
adapting to the new technology. There was an
immediate performance improvement, but satisfaction
was lower. Prior research has shown that satisfaction
with etexts is higher the longer students use it; students
who used the system two semesters were more satisfied
than those who only used it for one semester [8, 9]. Both
of these studies examined courses in which the
instructor (not the students) chose whether or not to use
etexts. The decision to use etexts for one semester or
two semesters was not up to the student, and thus is
independent of the students’ opinions of the etext
system. Thus we believe that the lower satisfaction
observed in this study reflects an initial drop in
satisfaction which is typical following the introduction
of a new technology as students adapt their learning to
the new system.
Thus we conclude that student satisfaction is likely
to drop immediately after the introduction of etext
software because students must adapt their learning
styles to the new processes enabled by the technology.
The short length of the experiment precludes any
comment about how satisfaction might change over
time, although past research suggests that students will
be at least as satisfied (if not more satisfied) with etexts
as paper textbooks over the long run [8, 9].
Although this study suffers from the usual
limitations of laboratory research, we believe it has two
implications for future research and practice. First and
foremost, since the provision of a modest number of
instructor annotations and one multimedia instructional
video embedded in the text improved student learning,
we encourage instructors to adopt this style of teaching.
This study used both instructor annotations and one
video, because this is how this chapter is normally
taught during the class on this topic. As a result we are
unable to determine which had more impact –
annotations or multimedia. More research is needed to
understand how students respond to both types of
additions to the textbook and how this impacts their
learning. It may be both are equally important, or that
one is more important than the other for certain students.
There is probably some ideal number of annotations
and videos for any given piece of content. One might
expect a declining marginal benefit for both. This
suggests that good practice would be to include a modest
number of annotations and videos, depending upon the
nature of the content and the availability of videos on
the Web. This too is a topic for future research; we
would hypothesize that too few would provide limited
learning value, but the provision of too many could
overwhelm students and begin to degrade learning. But
we need empirical evidence and guidelines for practice.
Second, students perceived that the etext software
did not meet their learning needs as well as paper
textbooks. This may be because we did not show
students how to highlight and annotate using the etext
software or because user satisfaction often drops after
the adoption of new technology as they adapt their
processes to it. Both explanations are plausible. Future
research is needed to better understand which is the
primary explanation for this initial drop in user
Regardless of which explanation is the best, we
believe there are two implications for instructors using
etext software. First, instructors should help students
adapt their study processes to the new technology. The
focus here is beyond showing students how to use the
software. This is a necessary but not sufficient first step.
The goal is to help students to change their study
processes to take advantage of what the etext software
can provide. This means 1) reading instructor
annotations and using the multimedia resources
instructors make available; 2) making their own
highlights and annotations; and 3) sharing those
highlights and annotations with other students and
reading other students’ annotations to better make
meaning of what the text has to say. By taking advantage
of the etext software’s capabilities, students can engage
more with the text, and learn more as a result.
Second, instructors should be prepared for an initial
stage of dissatisfaction with the etext software. Change
is never easy and changing study habits to encourage
students to engage with text materials is likely to prompt
some initial drop in satisfaction. Once this initial
change process is past and students engage more with
their texts, satisfaction is likely to increase, as past
research on the semester long use of etexts shows [8, 9].
However, some short term discomfort is to be expected.
Etexts have the potential to change the way faculty
and students teach and learn. Past research has shown
that students prefer paper textbooks to etexts when the
etext are simply digital reproductions of the paper
textbook (i.e., PDFs). However, past research also
shows that students prefer etexts to paper texts when
instructors annotate the text and embed multimedia
resources from the Web into the text and when students
highlight and annotate the text and share those with
others. This study shows that a modest number of
instructor annotations and multimedia video can
improve student learning. Taken together, we believe
these results are encouraging for the future of learning,
as it inevitably goes digital.
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Appendix – Questionnaire Items
Ease of Use
It was easy to use the textbook.
This textbook was easier to read than other textbooks
I have used.
The textbook was clear.
I was comfortable using the textbook.
This textbook was more difficult to read than other
textbooks I have used. (Reversed)
Met Learning Needs
My learning needs were met by the textbook.
Using the textbook was effective for learning the
The textbook was compatible with the way I learn.
The textbook gave me the freedom to learn the way I
I was able to learn efficiently using the textbook.