It happens every time. When I tell someone what I’ve been working on lately, they get a funny look on their face that says it all: “Really? eBooks?"

And I get it. eBooks are not considered cutting-edge technology in our field. What about all the exciting new uses cropping up in the world of XR? What about the synchronous virtual classroom technologies that have never been more advanced, or more needed? What about the powerful resources now available for creating multimedia? Why eBooks when there are so many other exciting learning technologies to explore?

Why eBooks?

First, let’s face it: reading has been the most accepted method of learning in the last 500+ years. You learn something by reading, in some medium or other, every single day. Of course, that’s not to say that it is effective to dump a lot of boring text into an eBook and call it good instructional design. You want your content to be curated, structured, relevant, concise, engaging—all of the things that set your learners up for success. But reading—on paper or a device—is still a valid and common way to learn, and it shouldn’t be dismissed just because it doesn’t require a $200 headset.

Second, a lot of the learning experiences that we create are really just reading experiences. We put words onto something that looks like a slide, and we animate them and illustrate them to make them more engaging, but at the end of the day, reading is the core of the learning experience. And you know what? That’s okay; not every learning experience needs to be a bleeding-edge, gamified haptic VR simulation. But in the process of turning reading into eLearning, we often take away characteristics that are useful in a reading experience... like the learner’s ability to access the content easily on any device, search for one exact phrase that they remember, jump directly to where they want to go, or mark up the content with their own thoughts (either on paper or digitally). And taking away those components is detrimental; convenient, easy access and the ability to personalize the content are important advantages for any learning experience.

Take advantage of modern technology

So if we accept that reading is a valid way to learn and we want to maintain its benefits, how can we also take advantage of modern technology to enhance the experience and improve the learning outcomes? We might want to add interactivity that’s founded in solid learning science. We might want to add tracking so that we have a better understanding of which content and which activities our learners are benefiting from most. We might want to add rich media, such as animations, images, and videos (yes, it’s just as possible in eBooks as in slide-based eLearning). We might want to facilitate discussion and collaboration between learners—or between a learner and a subject matter expert. We might want to make the content adaptive based on the learner’s expertise, reading level, language, location, and so on. We might want to integrate with other systems that manage competencies or provide other information about our learners. And all of those things are now possible with ebooks.

What is PeBL and what can it do for you?

Three years ago, ADL saw that potential and launched the Personalized eBooks for Learning (PeBL) project. Today, PeBL is an open-source codebase that allows instructional designers to create eBooks using virtually any (free or paid) creation tools, then plug in interactive components such as branching, content morphing, multiple choice questions for assessment or for retrieval practice, polling, feedback, show/hides, and discussions. And it’s all trackable, because PeBL was built with full xAPI integration from the ground up.

Instructional designers who have basic coding skills can work directly with the codebase, and those who can code well or who work with a development team can customize the learning experience even further... and may even create new kinds of interactive components. And recently, ADL funded the development of an authoring component, as well, so now there is literally no coding required to create PeBL eBooks.

It’s important to know that some of these features do come with a cost -not necessarily in terms of licensing fees for an authoring tool but in terms of infrastructure. For example, using xAPI requires an LRS, and some of the interactive features rely on xAPI to function properly, as well. So if it’s a complete impossibility for your organization to have an LRS, that’s something that’s good to know up front. But if it’s possible for you to stand up a free, basic LRS that your ebooks can communicate with, that’s all you need; you don’t need to do data analysis or even log in to the LRS unless you want to. The current version of PeBL also requires ebooks to be hosted on a web server, but a standalone option is in the works.

So... why eBooks for learning? There can be significant advantages to skipping the unnecessary technological overhead that we often require of our learners and their devices, and anchoring the learning experience in accessible and usable content. Today’s eBooks, when built well, can incorporate rich, interactive technology built around the principles of good learning science.

And that’s not a downgrade… it’s a solution we can all curl up with.

From the editor: Want more?

Judy Katz will present Creating Interactive eBooks—Yes, eBooks!—for Learning on April 22, 2020 during The eLearning Guild's "L&D on a Shoestring" Online Conference.

As you learned in this article, PeBL is an open-source codebase for creating personalized eBooks for learning. It is easy to use, capable of creating truly interactive learning experiences, and xAPI-enabled from the ground up to track and understand your learners’ journeys.

In her session, Judy will show you how to design and create a PeBL learning experience . You’ll explore examples of existing creations, discuss the problems you want to solve, and receive the open-source codebase to create interactive, personalized eBooks for learning.

In this session, you will learn:

  • How to create and publish a PeBL learning experience
  • How to make effective design decisions to create the most effective learning solution
  • How to enhance your PeBL with open-source extensions that make your content collaborative and adaptive
  • How to connect your PeBL to an LRS to gather and analyze data about your learners' achievements and the effectiveness of your learning solutions