Paper vs Digital ELT materials

There is currently a debate going on in the IATEFL Young Learner SIG Yahoo Group about the the pros and cons of publishing digital ELT materials/resources as compared to paper-based ones (i.e. books).

I have been reading the posts on this thread with a great deal of interest, and can't help thinking that those defending the paper model echo what many in the music industry were saying about digital downloading when the first effective model (Napster) came on the scene. There was a time some years ago when the music industry had a real chance to utilise the emerging technology to provide a new business model for the industry. Instead, they chose to ignore the change implied by the new technology. As we all know now, this has led to widespread adoption of illegal file-sharing and huge losses by record companies all over the globe. Despite efforts to stop this (DRM, court cases, legal file-sharing through iTunes, etc), most people feel the battle has been lost and musicians are starting to realise that the money has to come from elsewhere.

What has this to do with ELT? It's tempting to think that books are different, that we will always want to hold the physical objects in our hands, to own and collect them as objects? This is true of our generation maybe, but what of the next? The current generation is fast becoming used to a different model, where access to information (video via Youtube, digital music streamed through programmes such as, etc.)

Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference wortks have been the first books to suffer (like it or not, Wikipedia is fast overtaking the Encyclopedia Britanica as a source of information - the pros of Wikipedia far outstrip the cons: in the 21st Century, our sources of information need to be up-to-the-minute and dynamic).

What about the other arguments for paper-based material? Reading on a screen is not sustainable? You can't take it with you on the train? Devices such as Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPod Touch and the iPhone have changed that. I no longer buy a daily newspaper - I download the news from the BBC and El Pais to my iPod in the morning and read that on the metro.

What about the parts of the world where the Internet does not reach? The signs are that this will change in many of these areas. The Internet probably won't come via PCs, but will instead be available via mobile phones (did you know that most mobiles are in the developing world?), which are becoming ubiquitous in most parts of the world.

As we have seen (most recently in a heated exchange on Twitter between a wide variety of ELT professionals), there is a demand for digital copies of resource books and textbooks. The ELT publishers have yet to cater to this demand. The danger is that unless something is done, then what awaits them is what happened to the music industry re. digital downloading.

In fact, it's already happening. There has recently been a proliferation of websites and blogs offering illegal copies of most ELT textbooks and resource books. These are generally scanned copies of the books advertised by the sites as 'free ESL books to download.' The website authors claim they are providing a service to people, "freeing information", etc. but look carefully and you'll see the sites are generally full of advertising, so their aim is to make money by illegally copying and distributing the books. I am not providing any examples of sites as I really don't want to encourage this sort of activity. Of course, the publishers act against these websites when they are found (it is common for authors to report them to the publisher), but I fear they are fighting a losing battle if legal downloading of digital copies of ELT books is not going to be offered.

How things will turn out is difficult to say, but you can look at trends and predict. We are currently experiencing the death of the newspaper ( - talk to any newspaper journalist and you'll hear the same thing). As mentioned before, the emergence of new reader-friendly devices and increase in Internet mean that the demand for digital downloads will increase whether you like it or not.

Although I am a book-lover and know I will continue to buy and read books for the rest of my life (I am also writing one!), I do think that the shift from paper to digital materials in ELT is inevitable.


  1. Hi ya Graham,

    This is a great piece. In fact, it was this very issue, a year and a half ago, that led me to create my own website from which to sell my own materials from.

    I too can see the link between the music industry and the publishing industry and feel they will be going in the same direction. It simply makes sense.

    Der Spiegel did a big report a while back on the death of newspapers as well and one of the biggest here (trash journalism) publicly announced that if they hadn't created an online version they wouldn't still be in business. It was a good read filled with statistics.

    I am currently working on a project, creating an mini learning English community - blended learning/in-company conversation classes, with a new corporate client and we will not be using a textbook at all but will instead be dogme2.0ing ;-) the entire thing: with the students responsible for finding and uploading, working & discussing together.

    I agree with your points about copyright issues and deplore illegal copying (yes, I really don't download music and videos illegally -re Gavin D's posting on the issue and the twitter discussion) and, in fact, I call for greater awareness regarding creative commons licensing.

    As more and more people begin to understand how it works, it will enable ethical practices to become more definable/visible.

    Take care,

  2. Hi Graham
    Very interesting post. The analogy with the music industry is valid and time will tell whether things pan out the same way for the written word.
    Purely anecdotal, but despite my chosen profession in the world of e-learning, I still seem to have one foot planted firmly in the past. I do feel there's something special about books. I won't stuggle to put into words why I prefer to read a novel in paper form - and definitely not a printable download: the real thing, bound and all. Interestingly, my daughter who is totally switched on to itunes, digital downloading social networking etc, is also a big reader and has told me she would always prefer the book.
    All the best
    Peter Travis

  3. Thanks for the kind comments, Karenne

    How is your materials site doing? Are you able to sell enough materials to make it worthwhile?

    I applaud your Dogme 2.0 initiative - I to am going to abandon the coursebook for a course I teach at a polytechnic this year. I did this 3 years ago for this course (they are Cinema and TV professionals studying English as a subsidiary subject), but went back to the coursebook the year afterwards because I found it a strain. However, I think things have moved on considerably and want to try it again this year. We now also have a connected classroom, which will make a big difference.

    As for books, I think that self-publishing is becoming very interesting at the moment, and it's far more acceptable than it was in the public's eye (i.e. the stigma of 'vanity publishing'). This has been helped by the changes in publishing technology (print-on-demand means that books no longer have to be published in bulk to make them profitable, etc.). I think we will see a lot more of this going on in ELT. In fact, I am working on a book project (too early to reveal details) with a colleague and we were seriously considering self-publishing before the project was picked up by a publisher.

    One thing I have realised since then is the huge benefit input from others can have(in this case the series editors)- already the book is shaping up to be a much better one than if we had decided to go it alone.

    all this makes me think that for self-publishing to really work, it would need for the author to submit the materials for advice to several trusted colleagues first, to receive opinions and advice (the editor role) - if the colleagues are also materials writers then this relationship would be reciprocal.

    Perhaps a small network (Ning?) of materials writers who want to sell their work is the best place for this? Ha! Another social network!

  4. I agree with you too, Pete - I think for us, the book will always have that special quality to it.

    I am happy to hear that your daughter has become a book reader, and I'm sure the efforts of teachers and parents all over, encouraging their children to read and to value books will help the book and make sure it won't disappear in a long while.

    However, I do think that reading digitally is becoming more attractive - as I mentioned in my post, I've stopped buying a daily newspaper and read my news on a screen. I now actually prefer this to the experience of reading a paper copy of a newspaper - it's more fun and I have access to so much more (different opinions and sources, multimedia, etc)

    I also have some e-books, but haven't been able to read anything from beginning to end yet. However, I look at one of my latest book purchases (Neal Stephenson's 950 page hard-backed tome Anathem) which I'm never going to lug about with me, and wonder if I shouldn't have tried to buy an e-book version instead (if it exists)

  5. I've been following the same thread on the list, and trying to figure out what to say--it's such a huge topic, and the situation seems quite different for resource materials and textbooks (and even for adult vs children's texts).

    So far, I think that the materials provided by publishers online (which are free, as far as I've seen) serve two purposes--1) when they're supplemental materials for existing coursebooks, they're seen as helping sales of student books (the only part of a series that makes serious money) and 2) since they're usually embedded inside a teacher's "club" members give the publisher email addresses when they join.

    So far, ELT publishers don't seem to have found an online model that matches the profits in book sales, but I'm sure they're looking. It's not like people can't see that change is coming.

    It's going to be interesting to see how it all works out. I also think that most of the world will skip laptops and use mobile phones to access information.

  6. I agree on the whole. Going digital is inevitable. I only write for the Web these days. I used to work as a series editor for Taylor & Francis (formerly) Swets & Zeitlinger), but their publications are very expensive and therefore reach a very small audience - you crack open the champagne when sales hit the 200 mark. I have seen some academic books priced at over $1000, which only well-funded university libraries can afford:

    Going digital means more efficient distribution and it's a lot cheaper and quicker. However, research has shown that reading from the screen is around 25% slower than reading from the printed page - and one tends to skim rather than read carefully. I only read short texts from the screen. I print out anything over a couple of pages, and I always proof-read from the printed page. I know that, as an editor, I often miss errors when reading from the screen.

    See my reference to reading from the screen at the ICT4LT site:

    Graham Davies

  7. Barb,

    I wonder whether the model of undervaluing online materials that publishers have adopted (i.e. making them available for free) will prove to be a shot to the foot in the future.

    I don't think there was a choice, however, but I see that it's going to be very difficult to instigate a paid model for online materials that most people will adopt. Not impossible, just difficult. In general, I think the culture has been established that online = less valuable (and because a lot of it is free then all of it should be free)

    There are some interesting models out there though that offer possibilities ( for instance). Involving classroom teachers in the materials writing process and rewarding them for their efforts is a smart move I think. Using ratings for these published materials will also mean the best materials will rise to the surface.

  8. Thanks for this, Graham - I totally agree with you about proof-reading and the tendency to skim when reading online but wonder why this is the case - I will read the info you have posted and see if I can find out more

  9. Agreed, Graham. Perhaps publishers might opt for a subscription model. But so far, online materials seem to be "bonus" items to reward loyalty, not to replace purchases. I remember a couple of adult coursebooks that tried to include an online component (back in the 90s) and didn't do well.

    Chances are that the first publisher to devise a way to teach an entire course via mobile phone will dominate the market :)

    Hey, maybe WE should devise the first mobile phone ELT book!

  10. Hi ya Graham,

    I don't make a fortune out of it, obviously, but all costs have been covered.

    I'll be straight up and honest, even online, and tell you that I get about 2 or 3 purchases a week ranging between €5 and €25.

    (I went for the i-tunes approach and sell the materials individually).

    Obviously that's not the same quantity of money as if I had a sales and marketing team behind me, selling them, but it's not so bad considering I'm a lone operator.

    And at the end of the day they're photocopiable materials.

    (I had tried to go the publishing route and had two meetings with two different publishers both of whom came to see me but both came up with the same response: supplementary materials don't sell).

    But setting up the website, apart from me learning how to do this, how to code, how to work with Joomla (all self-taught) has also taught me some very valuable lessons regarding countries who purchase (the same ones repeat), the quantity they're willing to spend and that word-of-mouth works.

    I do intend on collating all the materials, adding about 20 more, and then selling these in a one book format... but yeah, time is not on my side these days.

    I don't agree with the "stigma" published book vs self-published book, principally because the only people who see this are those who have published books with big name players.

    At the end of the day very, very few teachers look at a book and then look to see who it is published by.

    Most teachers don't care about that - they want a quality material not a book with a logo on it.

    But yes, quality is an issue. I dealt with this by a) having free stuff available which I invite feedback on and b) keeping in touch with my purchasers so that they can report typos, suggestions for improvements etc - things which I can then change.

    Another thing that a publisher can't do neither easily nor quickly.

    Regarding belonging to another online community - agh!!!

    btw, there is a thread going on within BELTfree regarding money issues.


  11. Hi Graham

    It's taken me a while to find this, despite the speed of RSS feeds!

    I very much agree with your post and I see the similarities with the music industry as striking. Interestingly it is not just that music is being downloaded rather than bought, but that attitudes to music listening has itself changed. I recently read an article (I can’t find it now) that pointed to how listeners now try out vast quantities of music as individual tracks rather than buying whole albums (I did find this blog which suggests something similar: When I look at my own reading habits I think I see something similar.

    As you mentioned, reading the newspaper online is a different experience, not least because we can Google the topic, cross check with other sources, fill in knowledge gaps with Wikipedia/ and so on. And as the comments above mention, the very nature of reading online is different (speed, scanning, switching between sources etc).

    Of course, one difference between music and text is that we are often inclined to put pen to paper (virtually speaking) with text and turn the experience of reading into a constructivist learning opportunity. So, the activity of reading now naturally turns into a written conversation via blogs, twitter, wikis (including Wikipedia) or perhaps Google Wave (looking to the future a bit). I can’t help thinking that we are witnessing a shift in how we view information and knowledge: if we want clarification, we ask; if we disagree (or agree), then we say so; if we think it is wrong or limited, then we correct or augment it.

    I think the challenge for us as language educators is to find approaches that draw on these changes in reading habits to use materials (be they ELT or real-life) that are relevant to the learners. I see relevance as much more than subject topic, and even more than the style of language; but also how the material is actually used in class. As you know, I am a fan of Dogme and in particular I like the freedom it offers when using online resources. Focusing on teaching/learning as a conversation seems extremely appropriate when thinking in web 2.0 terms and allows the lesson to flow without having to so completely second-guess the needs and interests of the student.

    To give an example, I have recently been using twitter in class and I found that it naturally became a springboard for the student to jump into other websites. As ever, it was the student’s interest that gave the class its direction and drive.

    Btw, I still read books, but I just find that writing in the margins somehow lacks the social quality that commenting on blogs has!

  12. Thanks Karenne - it's great to see that it's working out. I also imagine it's something that will do better over time too.

    Howard, I think a lot of what you say is very interesting - perhaps what needs to be done now is something that moves away from the idea of what the book was towards something far more interactive. In fact, I've just read an article by George Siemens that argues for this - a new model for textbooks (

    George says that although emerging models for publishing textbooks (such as there's a real opportunity for a sea change in the way that knowledge is delivered, shared, and created. With what we have available today, there's no real reason just to provide downloadable textbooks that can be read on a screen or printed off - instead, the really interesting model is one in which the readers of texts can interact with it and the other readers, authors, teachers, etc.

    Very interesting indeed, but viable?

  13. Anonymous3:04 pm

    Hi Graham
    Very interesting post. thanks for sharing sejour linguistique cambridge


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