Potential of EPUB3 for Digital Textbooks in Higher Education
University of Graz, Graz, Austria
University of Graz, Graz, Austria
University of Graz, Graz, Austria
University of Graz, Graz, Austria
University of Graz, Graz, Austria
University of Graz, Graz, Austria
The e-book market is currently in a strong upswing. This research study deals with the question which
practical uses the e-book format EPUB3 offers for (higher) education. By means of a didactic content
analysis, a range of interactive exercise types were developed as a result of conversations with
teachers. For this purpose, a didactic and technical concept has been developed. Different kinds of
exercises were prototypically implemented in an e-book. Finally, a brief overview reflects the present
state of the current e-book readers.
A subsequent discussion illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of the format. In summary, it can be
remarked that EPUB3 is suitable for a variety of different exercises and that it is able to serve as a
basic format for forthcoming digital textbooks. Furthermore the openness of EPUB3 will assist Open
Learning and Teaching in a meaningful way.
Keywords: epub; e-book; interactive; enhanced; e-learning
These days, electronic books (e-books) benefit from a great distribution in the fields of poetry and
fiction. The market share in the Anglo American area has just recently reached 20% (Wischenbart,
2013). Compared to that, Europe lies on the lower end – but there is a great potential for growth. In
Germany for example, there is an annual growth rate of 60%
in the field of e-books. Since Amazon
has launched its e-book reader Kindle in 2007 and Apple its iPad in 2010 e-books are becoming
more and more popular. Due to the fact of the growing number of devices the topic of digitalized
books has experienced its renaissance (looking back on a long history starting in the early 1970s
with the “Project Gutenberg”
). Only a couple of years ago the number of bought e-books was
lower than 1% (Ehling, 2011). On the other side today’s surveys among university freshmen point
out that one out of seven students already own their own e-reader (Ebner et al., 2014).
However, high quality content designed in an appropriate and didactically meaningful way
is a precondition for effective learning as well as for teaching. Within university education the
printed book has already been completed by digital scripts e.g. using MS Word, Adobe PDF,
LaTeX or other text based formats. Those documents are widely distributed via Learning
Management Systems or different platforms. So it can be stated that the hardcopy is becoming more
and more a minority, replaced by digital documents (Nagler et al., 2011). Especially the flexible
character of those documents and the easy way to handle them with (mobile) devices gather the
attention of today’s learners.
Nevertheless, the definition of an e-book is not easy due to the fact that in the early days of
digital books each single digitalized document represented by the format PDF has been called
“electronic book”. Today there are more or less three meanings of that term:
• E-book = the digital book: As described before, an e-book can be just a digital copy of a
former printed book. This definition includes not only the digital version of real books, but
also journals, papers, magazines or even lecture handouts.
• E-book done with authoring tools: In the field of technology enhanced learning software for
doing HMTL-based content was introduced already 10 years ago. With the help of such
tools, like the ABC Publisher
, lecture content is created, published and used in an
• E-book for e-readers: This means books especially designed for e-readers and Tablet
computers. In general, such devices are able to display traditional PDF, but also different
formats like EPUB, which allow displaying the content in a much more flexible way.
In our publication we are strongly interested in the open standard format EPUB. Due to the
fact that Open Learning and Teaching are strongly based upon open educational resources our
research concentrates on open standards such as EPUB.
The EPUB (electronic publication) format is an e-book standard by the International Digital
Publishing Forum (IDPF) and was firstly launched in 2007. The IPDF published the EPUB3
standard in 2011 (Conboy et al., 2011). This new format opens up numerous opportunities for
teaching by utilizing state-of-the-art technology.
EPUB3 is a container format. A “container” is represented by a simple ZIP file containing
all relevant publication data. Thus, EPUB3 is essentially based on current web technologies like
Mediacontrol: eBook-Trend 2013: http://www.ceebo.de/news/jahrescharts2013.html [March 2014]
http://www.gutenberg.org/ [March 2014]
https://ebook.tugraz.at/publisher/ [March 2014]
based images as well as custom fonts and mathematical formulas is possible. Furthermore, the
format supports the text-to-speech functionality and thereby computer-assisted reading of text
Research Questions and Goals
Due to the fact that previous e-book formats did not offer many additional benefits in comparison to
traditional textbooks, e-books have been largely ignored in education so far. Thanks to the growing
audience for digital e-readers (Südwest, 2012), such as tablet computers and e-ink devices, and the
resulting widespread availability of digital media, e-books may play a more important role in the
near future. Thus, in the near future digital textbooks may play a significant role in education
(Ebner et al., 2013).
The question of which role e-books may take in education and how they can usefully
supplement tuition has been examined in a thesis by Monika König (König, 2013). According to
that from a theoretical point of view there is nothing hindering the introduction of e-books apart
from the question of financing.
Currently, the prevalence of the format is undertaking a transition from EPUB2 to EPUB3
(Wenk, 2013). However, the advantages of the newer format outweigh those of the previous
version, and therefore EPUB3 is continuously finding more distribution. This process takes time
and depends on a number of factors. Enhancements are needed in the entire publication process
(Bläsi et al., 2013), such as the distribution by publishers and the user's acceptance.
Nevertheless, this transition is constantly taking place, and therefore the EPUB3 format
should be subjected to a more accurate examination. The continuous progress raises the following
• What are the potentials of the EPUB3 format?
• Which contents are suitable for the format?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses of the format?
• What should the didactical and technical preparation process look like considering the field of
We try to answer these questions with the help of a field study and by developing a French
textbook. Thereby, common work sheets and exercises have to be implemented into the e-book to
point out the strengths and weaknesses of the format in a technical and a content-related sense.
Using a didactical content analysis and cooperating with teachers, we managed to cover a wide
array of possible contents and implement them by means of a prototype.
In one research study (Fenwick et al., 2013) interactive exercises are integrated in an e-book. It is a
textbook for the programming language “Prolog”. Using the authoring tool Apple iBooks Author
a prototype of a textbook in iBooks format
is developed. The focus of the interactive elements is
http://www.apple.com/at/ibooks-author/ [March 2014]
on image galleries und multiple choice exercises which are already included by default in iBooks
Author. The prototype was evaluated by a group of 18 students. In another research study (Singhose
et al., 2013) an existing textbook in the field of mechanics was implemented in an iBooks format.
For the presentation of complex mechanical processes, interactive elements like image galleries and
animations were used.
In a third research work (Gavrilis et al., 2013) an e-book in EPUB format was developed.
The user input is forwarded to a server via client-server communication. A small reader was
developed for mobile devices with the Android operating system. EPUB3 publications, however,
lacked Java libraries for reading, so the older EPUB2 format was used.
Considering the improvements the EBUB3 format is accompanied by, e-books are becoming more
attractive for education purposes. The efficiency of teaching and studying processes can be greatly
improved by the use of methods of instructional design such as integration of interactivity or the
implementation of multimedia (Kerres, 2007). It should be noted however, that using these
technical abilities does not automatically lead to an increase of quality of the teaching. This requires
developing a dedicated didactic or instructional design (Baumgartner et al., 2013).
Talking to language teachers, we conducted a didactical content analysis of the teaching contents
which should take into consideration a) the different learning styles and types, b) the different levels
of knowledge and c) the four communicative language competences stated by the Common
European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)
. Learning a language means to learn,
to understand (i.e. by listening and reading), to speak (i.e. by spoken interaction and spoken
production) and to write. A good textbook to foster language learning should regard to these four
competencies (in different ways). Furthermore, it is necessary to bear in mind that in university
language courses the audience is likely to be heterogeneous. Students do these courses for at least
one of these two reasons: a) to refresh their language skills, or b) to learn a new language. The
exercises should not be only drill and practice exercises in a behavioristic way (Morgret et al.,
2001), but should be varied, appealing, interactive, motivating and multimedia-based. Last but not
least, the exercises should be auto corrective in order to assure immediate feedback. The learners do
an exercise and immediately check their results. They are able to learn or to train themselves
autonomously and in a self-determined way regarding to their own learning rhythm and needs
(Chardaloupa et al., 2013).
At first, we defined the three main categories for learning French, besides learning the
vocabulary: a) phonetics, b) grammar and c) conjugation. We addressed issues regarding
appropriate exercise examples for each of those categories. These exercise examples should activate
different sensory channels (e.g. visual, acoustic) and different learning levels (e.g. beginners,
specialists). The exercises were again divided and assorted into sub-categories. To give an example:
When talking about phonetics it is important to a) recognize a phoneme before b) pronouncing it in
the right way. Therefore it is necessary to design exercises where the learners have to differentiate
between a [p] and a [b] before reading words aloud on their own. When they finally come to
http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/Cadre1_en.asp [March 2014]
language production feedback would be nice. So the learners read words, phrases or texts and can
check the solution where a native repeats the same words, phrases or texts in a slow, a normal or a
fast way. Even if this exercise type is not self-checking, the students can repeat the exercise and
train their receptive and productive skills and competences. If the words, the phrases or texts are
also written down, the learners can read them simultaneously – more than one sensory channel will
be activated. At a further step, the learners will hear phonemes, words, phrases or texts and will
have to write them down. The checking of this exercise type can be in form of a sample solution
that pops up after finishing the production part.
The same holds for grammar exercises. The learners should start by recognizing a verb’s
right inflexion before trying to conjugate a verb on their own. Dividing these to exercises levels,
language students will be able to train their understanding and their productive skills. Beginners
will probably have to start by the recognizing part whereas experts or refreshers can directly go to
do the production part. As in French diacritic signs (e.g. accents) are indispensable, they should be
easy to enter. Gap-filling exercises should be available in two versions, as real gap filling exercises
and as a solution grabbing exercise, where the solutions are displayed in a dropdown list.
Last but not least, we stressed out the importance of images and animations for language learning
(e.g. for motivating and creating appealing exercises and no plain text exercises). Images and
animations are not only interesting impulses to start conversations or text production, they can also
illustrate grammar chapters (e.g. the well-known “house”
for the French passé compose tense).
There should therefore be exercises that combine images and text or audio input. This exercise type
is well known when learning vocabulary as, for example, the parts of the body, but it can also be
used to learn prepositions or other grammatical aspects. By choosing specific images the same
exercise can be adapted for children and for adult learners – as we think of vocabulary work
concerning fruits for example. Not every exercise type is appropriate for young as well as for adult
learners. The crossword for example seems to need some experience in doing crosswords and is not
as self-explanatory as a memory or a drag-a-text-and-drop-it-on-an-image exercise known by
children from the “real world”.
As a result of these reflections and needs, a list of different exercise types was derived and will be
presented in part 4 of this paper.
contributes to interactivity in e-books. In addition, it can be used to analyze the user input and is of
high importance for both creating and changing content.
The core of the system is patterned according to the Model-View-Controller (MVC)
concept. Fig. 14 shows a graphical illustration of the MVC concept. The tasks of the three units are
explained in more detail here. The model unit contains the content of the exercise, such as tasks,
possible answers and solutions, options for multilingualism as well as any legal licensing
information for multimedia contents. Furthermore, user input is stored in the model. The view unit
is responsible for the presentation of the content. Interactive exercises are created dynamically by
with-etre [March 2014]
DOM (Document Object Model) manipulation based on the model data at runtime. Furthermore,
there are methods for creating popup and dialog windows. Certain additional features, such as
image magnification or adding copyright information to multimedia content can be activated via
parameter. The controller unit initiates the dynamic creation of the exercises, checks user input and
creates evaluations. With the evaluation of the epubReadingSystem object, a differentiation occurs
with respect to the reading system used.
Fig. 14. Model-View-Controller concept
are used. jQuery
is a widely used free library and is particularly suitable for the selection and manipulation of DOM
elements. Modernizr is used to verify the e-reader and its rendering engine on functionality.
Implementation of a Prototype
One goal of this research work was the prototypical implementation of derived exercise types. All
of the exercise types were implemented into the e-book based on a model example. Thanks to
The implementation was carried out by taking into account the simplest possible way of
reusability. This is a first step toward the automatic generation of e-books with interactive exercises.
This form of e-book production could be realized with the help of widget libraries. So, the authors
will not need to have any programming skills, thereby increasing production speed and the number
of authors significantly while costs could be kept low (Sigarchian et al., 2013).
This form of reuse requires a strict separation of practice content and graphical display. The
contents are put into separate files within the EPUB container. The practice content is defined using
object literals. In Fig. 15, such a construct can be seen by the example of a multiple choice type
exercise. This exercise, for example, can be inserted at that position of the e-book where a div
element with the ID mc1 is available. Exercise content can be exchanged as desired without having
to deal with the routine programmed in the view unit. An automatic generation of these files is
subsequently conceivable, for example, via online forms.
http://jquerymobile.com/ [March 2014]
http://modernizr.com/ [March 2014]
Fig. 15. Nested object literal with content of the exercise type “Multiple-Choice”
To evaluate the different forms of representation the prototype was created with both, a fixed and a
Considering the didactical concept and the defined categories as well as technical possibilities
different exercises have been created:
─ Drag and Drop
• Pair Assignment: Coherent elements are connected via drag and drop. A possible
implementation can be seen in Fig. 16. The screenshots have been made using the e-reader
• Group Assignment: The user has to move elements to their appropriate groups, e.g. allocating
articles to nouns.
• Order Assignment: Sorting elements in the correct order.
• Drag and Drop on Image: Dragging elements to the right place on an image.
─ Text Assignments
• Cloze: Filling out the cloze text by entering the correct words.
• Dictation: Playback of audio files and entering text at the same time for the means of
determining orthographical skills.
• Multiple-Choice: There are several possible answers to choose from. After successful
verification, the user gets to the next question. A screenshot of the exercise is shown in Fig. 17.
• Text Quiz: Answering questions by entering the text.
• Crossword Puzzle: Filling out a crossword puzzle and subsequent verification of the solution
─ Selection Tasks
• Drop-Down List: Selection of possible answers out of a list.
• Memory: Finding matching pairs by flipping cards. A screenshot of this exercise is shown in
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• Text Selection: Selecting single words or text phrases.
http://readium.org/ [March 2014]
─ Media-Overlay: This means synchronizing text and recorded voice files. While playing the voice
files, the related text passages are highlighted.
Fig. 16. Screenshot of the exercise "Pair Assignment" (Reader: Readium)
Fig. 17. Screenshot of the exercise "Multiple-Choice" (Reader: Readium)
As we presented the prototype to a wider audience (of language learners, teachers and non-language
learners) they were at first sight impressed by the high level of interactivity and multimedia
implementation made possible by EPUB3. At the second sight especially the teachers were
delighted by the appealing layout and the fact that the exercises covered the different language
competences and different proficiency levels as stated by the CEFR. The exercises activate more
than one sensory channel and use images that are licensed as creative commons, so the e-book
could be seen as an open educational resource. The license information was clearly displayed. One
person stressed out the point that the exercises can be done not only by adults but also by children
and mentioned the pair assignment and the memory.
Fig. 18. Screenshot of the exercise "Memory" (Reader: Readium)
It is for sure that there will always be additional wishes and needs that the audience expresses as for
example regarding the lack of annotation possibilities or the lack of advanced correction modes for
writing exercises besides the sample solution given in the prototype. Further feedback concerned
the integration of videos and their annotation. It would be desirable to have the possibility to
integrate not only videos but videos including questions that have to be answered in order to
continue watching the video. It would also be nice, according to the given feedback, to have the
possibility to annotate the video or to share annotations with colleagues. By this means, the social
learning component could be implemented.
For the language learners, it was important that the e-book is not limited to Apple devices (as, for
example, iBooks are) and that the exercises were self-explanatory and easy to handle. There were
wishes expressed by learners: to be able to save the results and to continue their training process at a
certain point and to communicate with each other or the language teachers. From their point of
view, collaborative or interactive exercises would therefore be as desirable as the communicative
aspect is. The language learners are often used to communicate and interact with each other in
social networks such as groups on Facebook or circles on Google+. If the e-book could integrate
communication possibilities such as learning groups or at least sending e-mails to each other, the
learners would use them, as they assured.
The EPUB3 allows the representation of differentiated content for learning and teaching. It can be
used for teaching new content as well as for reviewing already learned material. Knowledge can be
strengthened through interaction and active engagement with learning content. In addition, a high
motivation potential is reached. With the development of its own user interface, content can be
individually organized and structured by the authors.
It has been shown that in principle all content such as text, interactive exercises, animations
and multimedia content can be presented and structured in similar ways, as modern web
Another advantage is the possible network abilities. For example, a promotion of social
skills through knowledge sharing is as well conceivable as the monitoring of the learning progress
on the basis of client-server communication.
Some insightful points could be observed during the implementation of the prototype: It was
found that the integration of interactive exercises is only suitable for e-books with a fixed layout.
The fixed layout enables the exact positioning of the exercise within a page. E-readers, however, do
not differ in dynamic layouts, whether it is regular text or a self-contained exercise section. Thereby
it is possible, that a page break is set amidst the exercise area and carrying out the exercise is no
longer possible. One approach to solve this problem is the manual opening of interactive exercises
within distinct dialog boxes. Furthermore, a combination of fixed and dynamic layouts is feasible.
It has been observed that teachers often desire animation features. Animations can make an
important contribution to the learning process and serve to enliven the content. While HTML5
animations are certainly possible, the development of customized animations demands quite a high
level of development effort depending on their complexity. Furthermore, it also requires
reconciliation to the limited performance of mobile reading devices.
Furthermore, some obstacles were observed. Due to the usually small screen size of e-reader
devices there is a need for a well-planned layout and structuring of the content.
With drag and drop exercises, in which one drags an element from one location to another,
the dragging movements are often misinterpreted as swiping gestures. This means that unwanted
pages are turned.
The integration of multimedia content may lead to a high memory consumption of the
EPUB containers. In addition, multimedia files should be stored in multiple formats in order to
increase compatibility. This redundancy results causes a further increase of the file size. Therefore,
the advantages and disadvantages of local and online stored multimedia contents should be
Similar to different web browsers and their rendering engines, there are partially different
interpretations of standards with EPUB3 readers. An examination of the reading system used and an
appropriate reaction at runtime is very important especially in highly interactive exercises.
A device testing of the interactive exercises was carried out with the following tablet
• Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime (Model-No.: TF201-1I066A, Android 4.1.1)
• Samsung Galaxy Tab 7'' (Model-No.: GT-P1000, Android 2.3.6)
• iPad 3 (iOS 7.0)
These devices have no factory-fitted software for reading e-books. However, such software
can be installed. To this end, a search of available e-readers was made before the test. For Android
devices, the Himawari Reader
was used, as it showed the best results at that time. For the iPad, the
e-reader iBooks was used. In Table 1 a list of those results can be seen.
One can say that the interactive exercises on Android devices with version 4.1 as well as in
Apple iBooks are working fine. Nevertheless it should be noted that Media Overlay in iBooks
works only with e-books with a fixed layout. On the device with an older version of Android, many
of the exercises could not be performed.
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=jp.green_fld.himawari [March 2014]
In Table 1, the duration which was spent on the implementation of the particular exercise is
also mentioned. These details refer to the programming of the exercises and allow an approximate
estimate of the costs. The conducted content analysis, setting up the structure of the EPUB
container and any additional functions are not included in these values.
Table 1. Duration of implementation and device test
EPUB3 has the potential to play a significant role in supporting the teaching and learning process
and to make a significant contribution in the field of Open Learning and Teaching. This research
shows that a wide range of content can be implemented in EPUB3 format. In discussions with
teachers a wide variety of content and possible exercises was developed. The amount of content
plays a subordinate role. An e-book can deal with a small specific subject as well as extensive
materials over several chapters.
In addition, the strengths and weaknesses of the format in relation to digital textbooks were
identified. The strength of the format was found to be the high level of interactivity with the user.
This results in a high level of motivation, which could be demonstrated by implementing a
prototype. Since EPUB3 is an open format, this has a positive impact on its spread. Even now it is
supported by platforms and devices from different manufacturers, although not yet fully.
The circumstance of the open format is an advantage as well as a disadvantage. The standard
describes only the requirements of the format of the reading system, but not the implementation.
While publishers of proprietary formats provide corresponding reading software, the reading
software of open formats is produced by third party developers. However, these developers often
implement only parts of the standard which results in quality differences between reading software.
Crucial for the learning success is a well-planned selection and structuring of the content.
During this process, the benefit through the strategic use of media didactics compared to
conventional textbooks should be taken into account. It could be shown that the format is suitable
for both children’s textbooks as well as textbooks in higher education.
According to the current state, extensive knowledge in the areas of HTML5, CSS3 and
Decisive for the implementation of large amounts of teaching materials is primarily the presence of
easy-to-use authoring tools.
This topic is meant to be further developed in future work. In particular, the implementation
of a field study for a practical evaluation of the prototype by students is desirable.
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