Here Comes the Next Generation of E-Textbooks and E-Readers

IEEE is developing an architecture with features that will transform online learning

25 October 2016

Many of today’s electronic textbooks and training materials are not that sophisticated. Usually they’re merely digital versions of paper editions. Few have any real pizzazz, like videos, simulations, quizzes, or other multimedia features to help students grasp the subject matter. They also typically don’t have links to supplemental information on external libraries, or allow readers to share highlights and annotations in a collaborative way. And if e-textbooks do have such features, they’re not necessarily compatible with every reader’s operating system. But that might change soon because of IEEE’s efforts.

“IEEE is on the verge of completely transforming e-learning,” says John B. Costa, chair of the e-textbook effort and a member of the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA). “There’s so much upside to this project.”

To help those working on new e-book features—including publishers, content creators, and e-reader manufacturers—since 2012 the IEEE-SA Industry Connections Program’s Actionable Data Book (ADB) project has been designing a new architecture for e-learning material. The architecture relies on the latest in open e-learning and digital publishing software, analytics programs, and technical standards.

The actionable data book will not be a physical tome but a platform of bells and whistles—the apps, widgets, games, quizzes, analytics, cloud computing, and other capabilities that will work together to help students learn. For example, a student who scores poorly on an interactive quiz in an e-textbook built with the new architecture would receive a prompt on which sections to review. Or instructors could run analytics to find out where students had low scores on quizzes or posted excessive requests for help along the way, so they know where to spend more time covering that material.

“The ADB project has two tasks,” Costa says. “The first is to help authors and publishers by developing an analytics-enabled e-reader specification loaded with tons of embedded technology and built to common industry technical standards. The second task is to apply the project to advance the state of education and training.”

Costa in 2014 founded RePubIT, an e-book prototyping design and production studio in Sanford, Fla. It provides full-service publishing of interactive training e-books and real-time tracking of reader engagement. As a former director of technology for one of the world’s largest print publishers, Costa oversaw the production of e-textbooks and global content management operations.

Members of the ADB project include publishers, technologists, programmers, educators, government and military representatives, and standards experts. Several participants are also active members and working group chairs within the IEEE Computer Society and the IEEE Education Society. The activity is sponsored by the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee. IEEE Senior Member Hamadou Saliah-Hassane who chairs the IEEE P1876 Standard for Networked Smart Learning Objects for Online Laboratories working group believes ADB plays an important role in mobile laboratory standards, Costa says.

IEEE is better positioned than other technical organizations to develop the new standards that will be needed, Costa says, because much of the platform and its present features rely on existing IEEE standards, like those for video, data communications, and data security.

During the past two years, members of the ADB project have been prototyping features and tools, testing them on different operating systems, and building functional mock-ups. However, as volunteers the ADB participants could not allocate the programming resources needed to develop a fully functional ADB prototype. This changed when one of its participating organizations, the U.S. Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative awarded Eduworks Corp. a contract to design a platform and prototype that integrates the ADB work into the ADL Initiative architecture.

Costa, whose company RePubIT is contributing to the ADL-funded project, says, “The ADL project will produce a prototype and will enable testing its interoperability with multiple other learning systems. This is a large boost for the project which we believe will accelerate progress and adoption.

 “This creates the perfect situation for the ADB activity,” Costa says. “As strictly a volunteer team, ADB could never allocate the programming hours needed to properly develop a fully functional ADB prototype. The ADL project provides us with the goal of evaluating the ADB within its training architecture.”

The ADL Initiative and IEEE are still working out the details of the collaboration.

“I’ll be deeply involved in the actual prototyping of the actionable data book,” Costa says, “but the IEEE ADB group will test prereleases and advise us on such things as how to develop the interface and design the look and feel. What’s more, as a member of the ADB project, ADL will allow IEEE to use its book to demonstrate to others what the project is all about.”


In addition to IEEE standards, the ADB will use existing industry publishing standards including EPUB3, HTML5, and the Experience API (xAPI).

EPUB3 is the current version of a widely adopted standard for formatting digital publications such as books, magazines, and scientific journals. It supports complex layouts, rich multimedia, and interactivity.

HTML5 is for structuring and presenting content on the Internet. The language supports the latest multimedia, keeping it readable by people and understood by computers, mobile devices, and Web browsers.

The xAPI handles the analytics. It can share data via the cloud about people’s activities and performance, such as how long it takes to read a chapter and the number of times a person started and stopped a video. It also can collect and share data from simulations, quizzes, and games.

But not all e-reader apps support xAPI analytics output, and they vary on their level of EPUB3 support.

“This is an exciting but temporary challenge, especially with the common commercial readers used for the entertainment e-book market, including Apple’s iBooks e-reader app, Amazon’s Kindle, and Barnes and Noble’s Nook,” Costa says. “IEEE ADB is intentionally based on industry standards so that any e-reader developer can support ADB in its entirety.”


Just about everyone involved with e-learning can benefit from the project, Costa says, including authors, publishers, instructional designers, instructors, and e-reader manufacturers—to say nothing of people who want to learn [see how in the infographic below]. Authors will be able to obtain analytics about how people use their material, the features they’re using, and how long they spend on each chapter, he says. Such information might, for instance, lead to a redesign of the course materials.

Publishers will get data on whether students are watching embedded videos and using other multimedia features, he says, adding, “If students are skipping a video and still getting an A in the course, the publisher might decide to remove it to save money.”

Automated grading could reduce teachers’ workload. They would be freer to focus on content and students who are struggling.

Students could improve their comprehension of material based on prompts that tell them, for example, if they’re spending enough time on a chapter compared with their peers or that steer them toward additional material to reinforce understanding.


E-reader manufacturers will be able to insert the ADB architecture into their players and turn on its features with relative ease, according to Costa. He predicts that while early adopters will make their devices ADB-compliant, most probably will wait for the ADB project to release its reference model and submit formal proposals to IEEE for new standards and specifications. The reference model approach is similar to the SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), which the ADL Initiative started in 1999 for e-learning software interoperability. SCORM, which includes several IEEE standards, governs how online learning content and learning management systems communicate with each other. The new reference model would spell out how e-books, e-readers, common analytics databases, and publishing and e-learning authoring tools would all work together to support an ADB ecosystem.


Costa says he hopes to see more representatives from educational publishing and education technology companies—as well as from large commercial publishers and high-tech organizations including Adobe and Google—join the project. He wants them to “understand what we are creating” and “help us produce the material and technology.”

Interested parties may contact Costa or visit the project’s website.

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