E-books, clouds and tablets

E-workbooks –here to stay

All major ELT publishers are turning towards the web as a source of inspiration and – -let’s face it – profit. While there has been no shortage of the former, with a range of existing products like Macmillan English Campus and English360 coming into the market, it’s the latter that is proving more problematic. The solution may well lie in the e-workbook, which satisfies increasing market demand for web-delivered materials while also meeting the publishers’ need to create a digital product which is easy to use and easy to sell.

Publishers generally look for easy-to-understand business models. They have a team of (quite expensive) sales reps in all major territories, who have a thorough understanding of the local book market and an innate feeling for the book sales process. Generally speaking, book ordering is done via an ISBN against a one-off payment, which may be discounted for bulk purchases or for resale via an established book distributor. By and large, this is how e-workbooks sell, too. The teacher or institution can order a “class set”, and receive it as list of access codes which can be handed out to students. Once logged in for the first time, the learners have a year’s access before the e-workbook expires. In some cases, there is an option to preserve student results, either as a printout / download or as data stored online. Once accessed, students will find they have a wealth of integrated resources available at the touch of a mouse, typically including video, audio, self-correcting activities and a dictionary. In other words, the e-workbook offers tremendous, easy-to-grasp advantages over the paper-based equivalent. Add to that the fact that e-workbooks can be easily used as interactive whiteboard software – and can save the teacher hours of correction time – and you have a winning formula. For the publishers, e-workbooks offer a great halfway-house between the completely online course (there’s every indication from the market that neither teachers nor students are quite ready for that) and a wholly-paper based product whose limitations are now beginning to be very apparent. From the publisher’s point of view, the advantages are immediately clear. There are no print costs, no shipping bills, no warehousing and no insurance. As long as the e-workbooks are based on an existing platform (for example, Macmillan Practice Online uses a version of the Campus platform) development costs are relatively low. And any editorial slip-ups can be quickly corrected, and new content added when required without the need for a “reprint”.

So expect to see all the big four ELT publishers bring out e-workbooks in the very near future, to match all leading courses. And for you, the teacher, the result is more choice – have the traditional workbook, the online version – or even both.

Cloud or Fog?

You may already have heard the term “cloud computing” bandied about, but what exactly is it? And what implications, if any, does it have for practising teachers?

Essentially, using a “cloud” – in other words, lots of computers and micro-servers linked together over the web – is a lot safer and more cost effective for large companies than maintaining a huge local server (or servers) which are expensive to run and potentially susceptible to external threats. Running your own server also means you need qualified support staff and that if you want more capacity you need a bigger server. With a cloud infrastructure, capacity is effectively limitless and technical support is provided via the cloud service provider. According to Microsoft, it can be 40 times cheaper for a small organisation (which could include a university or a high school) to use their Azure cloud platform than to continue to provide such platforms for themselves. Amazon provide cloud computing platforms to small to medium sized enterprises, and in fact English360  is cloud based – there is no English360 server anywhere. Another example, of immediate practical interest, is Google applications such as Mail and Googledocs. Running a document on Googledocs – which is free to Googlemail users – means that all invited participants can work on the document at the same time – great for collaborative work on a report, for example. In the maturity of cloud computing, people will move from running most of their applications on their own PCs or Macs to doing almost everything on the cloud, in real time—turning their personal machines into nothing more than conduits. No more worrying about whether your PC will have enough memory to store all those family videos, or whether that disastrous hard drive crash means you’ve just lost the lot. The price of computers – which will become little more than 3G or wifi-enabled internet browsers – will drop dramatically, and become as common in the classrooms as biros. Not that there will be any need for those any more, of course.

Cloud computing is one of the biggest single developments in the past couple of years, and a lot of technologists view it as the top technological priority for the coming year – bigger by far in its implications than the iPad. Which brings us on to…

Keep taking the Tablets

Another development which nobody can have failed to notice is the irresistible rise of tablet computing, led by (who else?) those innovative people at Apple. The iPad – widely advertised and increasingly the weapon of choice for travel-light business people – is starting to take over the middle income world. It’s spawned a host of me-too imitators, of which perhaps the most successful is the Galaxy Tab, with its slightly smaller screen – a sort of half way stage between the iPhone and the iPad in size terms. The iPad is, in many ways, the sort of browser-based tool that cloud computing is helping to bring about. Not cheap – but cheaper than a good laptop – the iPad links to the web, enabling you to make free (or very cheap) calls using Skype, to access TV shows via (for example) BBC iPlayer and of course to run those all-important, web-independent apps – everything from addictive games like Angry Birds to ELT dictionaries and IELTS practice resources. Of course, the iPad and its friends are not flawless. The touch-screen keyboards are tricky to use and prone to keyboarding errors, and Flash-based programmes won’t run on an iPad. In ELT terms, this means – for example – that English360 will run perfectly well on the device, while Macmillan Practice Online won’t. The tablet computer is finding its way into an increasing number of private language schools – the mega-chain EF is experimenting with iPads for selected business students, as are some universities such as Fontys University in the Netherlands. It may be that the slinky, sexy app-friendly iPad – and its derivatives – will become the new netbooks, once they drop in price. And then the time will come when you’ll see one in every student’s school bag. Not to capitalise on this, as teachers, would really be a lost opportunity.

Laptops are not going to quietly go away though – on May 11th at Google’s developers conference they demo’d the first commercial versions of the Google Chrome laptop. These are designed for instant start-up – like the iPad – with minimal memory, as they’re designed to access cloud-based services – like English360, for example. Initial manufacturers will be Acer and Samsung, and at launch (June) US prices are expected to be around $400 – cheaper than an iPad and with a better keyboard!

And finally…

I’m writing this newsletter on Word 2007, and of course spell-checked it. The three words I had to add to the dictionary were iPhone, iPad and iPlayer….four years is an age in portable computing terms!

Have fun, and remember the only way to learn about all this stuff is to have a go!

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