III. A Different Way of Learning

The development of the ebook will have profound effects on the way in which both teaching and teaching materials are delivered in the future. Changes in the nature of the book as it moves from a print medium to an electronic hypermedium will inevitably affect the form and content of academic and other textbooks. Allied with the development of other forms of electronic communication, the academy of the late twentieth century is likely to become unrecognisable by the end of the twenty-first.

The Effects on the Textbook

At the time of writing, 1997, the majority of non-fiction electronic books are based on the encyclopaedia model, since the superiority of electronic books for data retrieval has already been demonstrated. The Virtual Worlds of Girls hypertext cluster is designed to explore the effects of the ebook on the form and content of the humanities/social sciences research textbook, and demonstrates that translating the printed textbook into its electronic form results in some fundamental changes in the content and structure of research publications, together with the way in which readers perceive and use them.

First, in 1997, printed theses and research text books share an almost identical structure and length, varying only in their presentation and the numbers produced. (Whereas theses are now word-processed in double-spacing and are then presented as a few handbound A4 hard copies; textbooks have been further processed in single spacing before being professionally printed and bound in multiple copies in a variety of standard sizes.) Printed theses and textbooks are therefore interchangeable from the point of comparison with e-books, and have the following characteristics.


Electronic textbooks, in contrast, give the reader far greater control over the reading process, as well as greater ease of reading.


Second, while the traditional printed textbook exists in isolation from other texts, the electronic textbook makes the relationship between texts explicit and actual. For example, in the electronic online library of the future, the use of hypertext links would allow readers to enter and read any other book referenced in the footnotes of an electronic textbook. The reading process of the electronic research textbook is therefore fundamentally different to that of the printed textbook.

Third, both the content and the reading process are further affected by the ability of the electronic textbook to include moving and still images and sound, taking "reading" from a purely textual to an audio-visual experience. Whereas the traditional reader beholds the subject entirely through the author's eyes, firmly guided by them though the material, the ebook reader sees further and more independently. Rather than simply accepting the author's assessment of an interviewee and the summary of their words, they are able to watch and hear the interview for themselves. Rather than simply accepting the author's descriptions of people and places, they are able to see images for themselves. And rather than following the author's structure, they are able to choose their own route through the material, following topics at will.

Academics, who adopted photography in the nineteenth century as a research tool and audio recording in the twentieth, will have to add picture research and video recording to their skills in the twenty-first century, following the lead of anthropologists who have traditionally been quick to make use of new media. As with photography and audio recording, it will be possible because of technological developments bringing the necessary equipment within the financial reach and technical expertise of ordinary people.

Finally, the structure of the electronic research textbook also allows it to be read and used at a number of different levels. In the case of the Virtual Worlds of Girls hypertext cluster:


Ultimately, of course, the author of the electronic textbook still retains control, choosing the content, presentation and overall structure. But the printed book's structure is extremely rigid, and in the case of the footnotes and subject index, difficult to use to gain further information, while the printed page forms a barrier which the reader cannot penetrate, leaving them entirely in the hands of the author. The electronic research textbook, in contrast, allows the reader to see more deeply and to have greater control over the reading process, and therefore offers them greater freedom to draw their own conclusions. This is particularly appropriate for the presentation of research findings in a postmodern world, as well as offering richer research opportunities to academics of future generations.

The Effects on the Academy

What impact will the ebook have on the academy? The development of electronic, "online" libraries, where an infinite number of readers can make digital copies and so have access to the same text at once, could have a dramatic and liberating effect on the material available for research and teaching. Teachers would no longer have to limit their course materials to those which are "affordable", in print and accessible in a particular geographic area. Instead, teachers and students would potentially be able to access any text which has ever been published. Teachers and students would become aware of a much wider selection of material than previously, through the use of "search engines" and hypertext links. Landow points out that: "All the qualities of connectivity, preservation, and accessibility that make hypertext an enormously valuable teaching resource make it equally valuable as a scholarly tool". Translation programmes also break down the barriers which presently mean that few scholars are aware of work being carried out by those writing in a different language.

(Of course, none of these effects are inevitable. For example, today's canon of approved printed texts could simply be replaced by a group of links to approved electronic texts; the power of the critic replaced by the power of the link- this hypertext cluster is already linked on the World Wide Web to a number of academic sites which do just that. If texts are not supported by the authority of these links, they may be ignored. Equally, the cost of publishing a text electronically could rise, excluding many texts. And access to particular texts could also be restricted, to those who can pay or to those who are members of a particular institution or organisation.)

The nature of academic books and teaching materials will also change. Cotton and Oliver write that:

It is interesting to note here that Gill Kirkup identifies bricolage as a characteristically feminine way of working.

Cotton and Oliver go on to point out that "quotes" can also be modified when reproduced electronically, and that "as well as text, sound, images and moving images can be sampled and assembled in new forms". Landow adds that the availability of texts online means that quoting does not even involve retyping, just the use of the computer's "copy and paste" function to transfer the desired text into his work. Copyright, of course, will never have been more problematic. But this change in the nature of the book will mean that a new type of teaching material can be created: part survey, in that it can bring together quotes from a range of sources on a particular topic, linking back to each of them; and part notes to the texts being quoted and linked.

Another way in which the nature of academic books and teaching materials will change is in length. The ebook allows still and moving images and sound files to be incorporated along with written text, while its ability to offer a non-linear reading experience is almost certain to result in more material being included by the author. Increasing the size of a printed book means increasing the number of pages and thus the printing costs, as well as increasing the storage requirements and distribution costs (for example in postage). Increasing the size of an ebook has none of these implications, as a single CD Rom can store the equivalent of 200,000 A4 pages of text. And when online, of course, an infinite number of texts can be linked to each other without needing to be stored in the same place, as the World Wide Web already shows.

Spender prophesies that the first publications to be affected will be research-based. A reduction in library funding has meant that there has been "a huge reduction in library subscriptions to print journals" which has affected their viability, meaning that journals are already being published electronically. She adds that "it is only a matter of time before we have research reports and PhDs presented as software or videodisk"- this hypertext cluster, of course, being a case in point.

Spender warns that electronic publication could lead to the disappearance of the traditional process of checking, scrutinising and assessing - "refereeing" - research before it is published, although she is not greatly disturbed at the prospect. However, while this is certainly possible and is true of publishing on the World Wide Web today, it would by no means necessarily be true in the majority of cases in the future, since online readers may start to demand the very quality controls which print publishers impose today. It is almost certainly the case that writers will continue to be able to publish online without regard to editors or publishers, but whether anyone will wish to read their work without external recommendation is another issue entirely.

Ultimately, the ebook and other hypermedia technologies may lead to the end of the academy as we know it. Teachers and academics may be replaced by electronic learning programmes; academic communities may be replaced by networks of individuals working from home or industry. Cotton and Oliver warn that:

Spender, however, prophesies that educational institutions will survive, but only by adapting and changing their primary function.


Academics will certainly have to develop new skills. Spender prophesies that research will increasingly be presented orally or visually rather than in written form, meaning that academics will have to learn to ""perform" which she describes as a "grave implication". She adds that:


Perhaps, though, this will have benefits unforeseen by Spender. In the current academic climate in the UK, "teachers" are being continually devalued in favour of "researchers", although this divide is in itself arbitrary and often untenable in reality. Since teachers must already perform in order to deliver their lessons, their status may quickly recover with the advent of electronic teaching. Meanwhile the researcher who is unable to perform must face a future as part of a team, while the teacher who is a poor performer may finally be recognised for what they are, a poor teacher - and it is unlikely that the disappearance of poor teachers will be mourned by anyone but themselves.

There are other implications, too, for the way in which teaching is delivered, particularly in terms of day-to-day contact with other academics. Landow points out that:

As a result, Landow warns that the role of academics will have to change, since the power relationship between teachers and students will be altered.


The transfer of authority from people to technology will indeed have a profound effect on the balance of power within the academy. Traditionally, as Spender points out:

But, as she continues:


How else will students be affected by the use of hypermedia in teaching? Landow points out that it could first widen access to the academy, since physical access would not be essential.


Spender has noted the impact that it will have on the nature of students' work.

I think that this is overstating the case somewhat, but there is little doubt that the nature of postgraduate study will change significantly as literature searches take up proportionately less of their time, while undergraduates will become active rather than passive learners as they are empowered to carry out a greater amount of literature research for themselves. And, as Landow points out:


Students' competence will certainly have to be judged differently. Spender points out that:


Perhaps, like Spender, women in the academy will find the implications of the move to electronic forms of teaching and learning less threatening than men. After all, women are currently marginalised within the academy, both in terms of employment and the curriculum, and in the labour market as a whole women are believed to be more flexible and to find it easier to adapt to change. Feminist literary critic and academic Elaine Showalter has already welcomed the trend. She writes that: "Only the high priesthood of literature is in danger and it is its own worst enemy. As for me, I'm looking forward to teaching my first course on 21st century literature, even if it comes with modems, tapes and a lot of cappucino." Those teachers who don't share this view, Spender prophesies, will become "increasing irrelevant".

However, a welcoming attitude to the possibilities offered by electronic media may not be enough, particularly if one is unable to afford the cappucino. And as well as women's more limited incomes making financial access difficult, Spender and many others have demonstrated convincingly that girls' physical access to computers is obstructed by male peers, teachers and parents from pre-school age onwards, and that they face a high level of abuse and harrassment within the computer classroom and laboratory. Spender warns that:


As Margaret Lowe Benston points out, achieving change will not be a simple process, since fundamental to using technology is a belief in the right - and confidence in the ability - to dominate nature and to control the physical world; a belief which characterises the male rather than the female gender role. Women in the academy therefore need to act now if they are to ensure that both they and their female students obtain the benefits which electronic media can bring them. Women need to be visibly using technology before the perceptions of it as anything but a man's field will change; and women academics have the power to do this, both in their teaching and in their publications.

Next: IV. Readers, Writers and Cyberspace
Return to: The E-Book and the Future of Reading Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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