While A handful of Irish schools begin to experiment with ebooks, one of the country’s best-known educational publishers is already deep into its digital transformation.
It would be understandable for an old-fashioned educator to get a little nervous at the idea of a classroom where books have been all but replaced by individual, internet-enabled screens.
But 102-year-old publisher Edco, best known for its printed school books and exam papers, expects to be at the heart of its business in the near future.
The company’s digital path has been a long one, beginning as a modest support tool for students almost a decade ago and ultimately growing into the fully digital catalogue it offers today.
“About 10 years ago we realised there were seeds out there; this whole digital area was beginning to take shape so we’d better start doing something,” says Martina Harford, chief executive of Edco.
That something was a relatively modest support tool for students using Edco’s exam papers for three subjects. E-xamit.ie has since grown to cover 27 subjects and boasts an annual user base of around 50,000, or half of all of those sitting State exams.
From there the company began to build on its offering and, as computers began to become a feature of the classroom (for teachers at least), they developed digital resources to compliment their book-based lessons.
“We now have upwards of 20,000 teachers logging onto that on a daily basis,” says Ms Harford. “The next step then was obviously going to be the pupils.”
This year Edco has made available a collection of 300 second level ebooks, which can be used instead of, or in addition to, the printed equivalent.
They are accessible through a cloud-based platform that Edco itself developed, something which Julie Glennon, sales and marketing manager, says was an important part of getting the offering right.
“We had the opportunity to buy something off-the-shelf: there’s lots of companies internationally that have ereaders and eviewers and we did look at that,” she says. “But that doesn’t give us the flexibility to add features, interact and develop our own unique areas that give us a competitive edge in the market.”
The platform allows students to make notes and highlight passages on their books, but can also embed extra features like videos and interactive elements into the pages.
This has allowed the school books to become a far more enriched resource than was previously available. However, according to Ms Glennon, having tight control of the software brings many other advantages.
For instance its cloud-based nature means students can access their books from different locations, while Edco can also easily update content to ensure it does not suddenly become inaccurate.
“Say a new president is elected in America or we have a new taoiseach, instead of waiting three years for a new print book we can commission authors to write up a document, which is pushed out and students get a notification to say there has been an update.”
One of the most important factors of its design, however, is its platform neutrality. Ms Harford says they decided from early on that it was not their place to dictate how the students access the content.
“One thing that was always in our mind from when we started was that we didn’t expect everyone to be able to buy the most up-to-date device, so from the very start we said we were going to construct it in such a way that no matter what device they had they could use it,” she says.
This platform neutrality was also a consideration from a software point of view.
“A few years ago we built the teachers’ site in Flash and we didn’t know the iPad was going to come out and it was going to be a massive phenomenon,” says Ms Glennon, explaining their use of HTML5 for their ebook software. “We decided that we can’t decide as a publisher to say what devices our content is going to be used on. We want to be able to work across all devices.”
By going digital, Edco naturally forgoes the printing and distribution costs associated with traditional books. However, there are new costs that arise from a proper ebook offering.
While print books for school are VAT-free, no such exemption is made for ebook equivalents at present.
The specially-commissioned media and timely updates that enhance the books also come at a cost, as does maintaining the cloud-based platform in general.
“We try our best to use things that are Irish-based and that ties in with the curriculum,” says Ms Glennon, who gave the example of science experiment videos, which Edco records in its own studio.
“You might say why can’t you just search online, but the main point of research coming back from teachers was that they needed reassurance that the content that they’re using is tested, written by experienced authors, has been reviewed, is pitched at the right level and is also in line with the curriculum.”
Despite these new costs the company is offering ebooks for less than the print equivalent and is confident that, even with the hardware cost included, it will ultimately become a more viable option for an increasing number of Irish schools.
At present around 3 per cent of secondary students are using ebooks in the country, which is roughly in line with international figures.
In the US ebook adoption in schools is anticipated to reach 25 per cent by 2015 and 50 per cent by 2018, a trend Ms Harford believes Ireland will track.
“That rate could change, could accelerate, but that’s the research that’s out there at the minute,” she says. “We call it managing the tilt.”
Despite this clear trend both Ms Hardford and Ms Glennon are tactful when asked when the printing presses will be turned off. “That’s not going to happen any time soon,” is the answer.
Of course there are valid concerns that need to be addressed before that could happen, regardless of ebook adoption in schools.
For a start, many would bristle at the prospect of children never having the chance to work on their basic handwriting skills.
However, such a debate is likely to be a while away in this country, while Ms Harford sees no prospect of the humble pen’s extinction from the classroom – at least as long as the State lags behind.
“If the Leaving Cert continues to be a handwritten exam then kids have got to be able to continue writing with a pen and paper,” she said.
This article was originally published in The Irish Times