digital textbooks? What to do while waiting for nirvana to arrive…

I posted this on my blog, but thought it would be of interest to some of the readers of this blog as well.

One day, I’m sure I’ll be able simply turn on my iPad and download a copy of Goldstein from the sky, interact with beautiful videos of double pendula, type code right into the text to simulate a binary star system and see the output in the book, write on the book just like I would with a pencil (but with hundreds of colors and styles to choose from), and then highlight and paste out excepts into a written document, and much much more. I’m not sure if it will be an ePub, a cdf or a pdf, but I can tell you, right now, we’re not there yet. Current e-textbooks you may create suffer from many limitations.

Here are some of the tips I’ve picked up in trying to create my own little e-textbook for my students. I created a Pages document based off of Kelly O’Shea’s excellent revisions to the Modeling materials. To this document, I added hyperlinks and QR codes to selected answers, links to some websites mentioned in the document, and 4 instructional videos I wanted students to see.

The first thing you should know is doing this creates files that are huge. My 16 page pages document runs 100MB, and downloading that over wifi onto an iPad is far from an instantaneous operation.
I considered two formats for an e-texbook, ePub and PDF:

  • ePub: ePub is stands for electronic publication, and it’s the the defacto standard for readers that reflow text like the Kindle and iBooks. Unfortunately, it’s huge weakness is the limited amount of layout/formatting control you have. To create a ePub from pages, you need abandon all floating objects in a Pages document, which is pretty much a non starter if you’d like to put a picture wherever you want.
  • PDF: the old standard of publishing—PDF allows you to present the reader with a digital version of the paper document you were going to print. It supports complete layout and formatting control, and the expense of not being able to reflow you text as an ePub document can. PDF also supports hyperlinks and video embeds on some platforms and viewers.

I considered 3 possibilities as potential e—book readers.

  • iBooks:the default free e-book reader that comes with the iPad.
  • GoodReader: The totally amazing do anything pdf/ebook/media reader that you can purchase for $4.99.
  • Pages for iPad: the iPad version of Pages, the word processing software I used to create the document.

So let’s take them one by one. I’m going to judge these programs based on the following features: looks/ease of use, hyperlinks, video embedding, ability to annotate, and cost.

I’ll rate these apps in textbooks, with more textbooks being worse—no one wants to carry around 5 textbooks, and negative textbooks being good—the app actually lightens your load.


  • Looks/ease of use: First, it’s simple enough to get a document into ibooks, all you do is drag the pdf to itunes, and sync it with your iPad. However, this operation requires syncing with a cable, which is a huge pain. Once you do this, however, the book looks nice. Pages flip as you’d expect, and everything ims rendered at a fairly high resolution. (+2 textbooks for annoyance).
  • Links: you can click on and go to links in iBooks. However, there are two drawbacks. The links are somewhat hard to click—they require a sustained tap, and when you do click on a link, you are taken to Safari, and to get back to the document, you have to hit the home button and iBooks again. (+1 textbook).
  • Video Embedding: There’s no embedding video in a pdf that can be read by iBooks. You’ve got to link the video and follow the link to website like youtube or vimeo to view it. (+1 textbook).
  • Annotation: No annotation ability at all—everybody wants to be able to draw in their text.. (+2 textbooks)
  • Cost: Once you get an iPad, it’s free. Nothing not to like there. (-1 textbook)

iBooks overall score: +4 textbooks. I’d put this one down.


I’m consistently amazed by all the incredible things this little piece of software can do. I won’t list everything here, but you should check out this incredible page of features. But can it be the e-textbook solution?

  • Looks/ease of use: I’ve got to admit, the first time you take a look at the GR interface, you might have to restrain yourself at its unattractive looks. But if you take a moment to explore, you’ll find an incredible amount of power under the hood. For starters, it can connect to almost every cloud service imaginable (including email), so it’s easy to pull documents into GoodReader from Dropbox, email, google docs and more. (+0.5 textbooks for aesthetics -2 textbooks for usability: overall look & feel: -1.5 textbooks).
  • Links: Good reader does links right—links open on one tap, inside the app, getting back to your document is a single touch. This is awesome. (-2 textbooks)
  • Video EmbeddingGR can’t view videos embedded in a pdf, but if you put a link to the video, it can open the video up on an separate page in GR. While not idea, it’s manageable. (+0.5 textbooks).
  • Annotation: This is where good reader shines, offering the best pdf annotation of any iPad app I’ve found. Three finger taps bring up an annotation palette, and you can draw shapes and freehand drawings on the pdf with easy. What’s more is that GoodReader will let you decide whether you want to save the annotation as a layer in the document, or in a copy of the document. (-3 textbooks)
  • Cost: at $4.99 GoodReader is a steal. This is an essential app. But students are on a budget, so I’ve got to give some textbooks for not being free. (+0.5 textbooks)
  • Good Reader Overall Score: -6 textbooks. This is like filling your backpack with helium.


  • Looks/ease of use: Documents imported into pages look almost exactly like they do in Pages on the mac, which is mostly a good thing. One downside is you scroll up/down through the document rather than flipping pages. Pages is also pretty crippled when it comes to opening documents from the cloud—it can open documents stored in your iDisk (which requires a MobileMe, soon to be iCloud, account, or a WebDAV server, which can be somewhat difficult to configure, but at least you don’t need to attach a cable to import a document. Also when you open documents in Pages on the iPad, as of the time of this writing, they are fully editable, which is less than desirable in many applications. This may change in the future with Lion allowing you to create locked documents. (+1.5 textbooks)
  • Links: Links are pretty much like iBooks—sustained click, confirm you want to go, off to Safari, and a long time to get back. Not good. (+1 textbook)
  • Video Embedding: Here is where pages shines. Do you see that video you embedded with Pages on the mac? Just click it, right in the document, and it starts to play. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way to go fullscreen with the video, instead you have to resize the video box on the document, which is a pain, and destroys the layout you tried to create in the first place. (-1 textbook)
  • Annotation: The good news is that you can type in your documents just as you might in a word processor, but this also changes the layout of the document, and Pages has no support for any sort of hand drawn annotation, which is really what one would want in this situation. (+0.5 textbook).
  • Cost: At $9.99, Pages is rather expensive for use as a document reader. If you were going to edit a lot of Pages documents using the iPad, that may may justify the cost, but if you are just using it as a reader, there are certainly better options out there, starting with GoodReader. (+1 textbook)
  • Pages Overall Score: +1 textbook. Not the worst thing in the world, but still an annoyance more than a pleasure.

So it’s pretty clear that the overall winner here is GoodReader, but we’re still far from the e-textbook ideal that I might like.

What am I going to do for my classes? I think I’m going to offer them the choice of downloading the full pages document, in case some of them do want to read it in Pages, but I’m mainly going to encourage them to download the pdf version of the document, without embedded video, and to pony up the $4.99 to view it in GoodReader, or iBooks if they don’t want to part with the cash.


About John Burk

The ramblings of a physics teacher.
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2 Responses to digital textbooks? What to do while waiting for nirvana to arrive…

  1. Agnes says:

    All this is pretty exciting! However, I’m not quite sure the present version of iPad is the best tool for ebooks. This summer I have logged dozens (probably close to 100) hours of iPad book reading and I have often found it frustrating. The glare on the screen in ever so irritating. Depending on the light I had at the moment, I had to give up reading the iPad alltogether. The more light, the worse. I am looking forward to a new version of the iPad with the Kindle screen 🙂

  2. Looks fantastic — sadly, though, I don’t have an iPad, and I don’t have the money to buy one any time soon!

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