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Ebooks as Textbooks - Part 2 - Highlighting

Highlighting can be a very effective tool in reading and learning no matter the kind of text being read: from novels to textbooks.

Most textbooks or other forms of information text will usually used text features along with graphics to help organize information presented in the text.  These elements are done to help focus attention on important or key concepts and provide additional information. The text organization itself can include structural elements such as heading, subheading, index, glossary, paragraph spacing, bulleted or numbered lists, sidebars or side boxes, italics, underlines or bold for words or even sections. Graphic content can include the use of symbols, colors, illustrations, pictures, diagrams, charts, and graphs.
Poor highlighting design - too much text has been highlighted. 
The act of highlighting is less time consuming and much easier than note-taking (to be discussed in an upcoming posting). To be effective in highlighting it should be a kind of metacognitive approach of sifting or filtering to identify the important content, but usually the problem that I see when looking over what students are highlighting is that their highlights don't focus on just the important. Ideally with highlighting you should be identifying the important elements, but too many students have problems identifying the important parts and will highlight way too much - I've even seen whole pages highlighted. So while highlighting is easy to do, it is also easy to do poorly  – students usually highlight 70-80% of the text but experts say that you should only highlight 10-15% in a printed edition. So one approach for effective highlighting is to read the content first and then highlight, so you don't get lost in the "this all seems important" fallacy.  If you are the student, and you make the mistake of highlighting too much from your book,  this results in an over-highlighted text situation and your highlights won't show you the actual important parts. Think about it, if you highlight 80% of the text from a book, when you go to study or review your reading, you pretty much end up having to reread almost the whole text again - an inefficient study strategy. Your purpose in highlighting is to make something in the text stand out and to reduce the amount of material to be remembered.

So when you are reading a textbook, it is usually better not to highlight the text as you read it. Instead, as you read or have just finished with a paragraph or section, you should use the highlighting tool of your ebook device or program to go back to mark specific things. Read the paragraph first, then think about what information you have just read and what is important to take from that section or what do you need assistance in remembering - but think a few words or a sentence - not the whole paragraph or page, then highlight those phrases.  The idea is for you to read and act like a filter the important parts come though and those are the ones that you mark with your highlighting tool. Then as you get better at it, you might start marking text that you have identified as important before finishing the section. The only exception to this rule that I would encourage students to break is to highlight the entire chapter summary. Go ahead and read and then highlight the whole summary (unless it is pages long all by itself). Actually research has shown that even just reading a textbook's chapter summary can be an effective learning strategy - makes sense you are just looking at what the author thought was the important parts of that chapter - it can even help to read the summary first before reading the chapter - as it will help you identify important parts before read the whole chapter.

So to review - your highlighting steps should be:
  • First, read the section or paragraph first.
  • Next, go back through that portion of the text  highlighting the key  phrases - you might also focus on the introductory and concluding sentences of the paragraph, as they often summarize the important points.
  • But be selective about your highlighting, not too much or too little - figure it should be somewhere between 10 to 15% for a printed textbook and about 25 and 30% for an etextbook (the reason why more for ebooks coming up next) - that should be sufficient to identify the important points from a textbook.

But how is highlighting in an ebook different from highlighting a regular printed book? Of course, first is that you don't need to buy a highlighter, in the ebook device or program it is usually already built in and when you use it, you don't actually "hurt" the book by digital highlighting as compared to how your teacher may feel about your physical textbook if you have highlighted in it and have to return it or you try to sell it later. The downside for an ebook about highlighting is that you can't highlight images or portions of images. An important learning element that is different about highlighting in an ebook is the option of context - so for that reason, I've often found it better when highlighting in my ebook to have more than just a word or words highlighted -  even if it is the important word - this is the opposite of what you do with a physical textbook where the general rule is not to highlight whole sentences. You should do this because you can access the ebook highlights in different ways than you could with a highlighted print book. In the print book the only ways you can see your highlights is in context -- you turn the pages, you see the highlight and you can see the other words around the highlighted word. With a print book, a single highlighted word may be sufficient to attract your attention to it as you scan a chapter for review. This strategy would also apply to ebooks as you move from page to page, but with the ebook, you have two options for reviewing your highlights. An ebook can display the word in context as you move through the text or you can pull up (and export) your annotations list and see the highlights out of context - where you create a page just the words that you have highlighted with no surrounding text.

Good highlighting for multiple etextbook applications
would involve highlighting more than just a word - go for the
whole sentence or phrase. 
To highlight to get context for the content in an etextbook you will usually have to highlight entire sentences or phrases. Usually introductory or concluding sentences in paragraphs are good summaries of content, but there can be more. Look back at a paragraph and see what is key, for example it could be a new important vocabulary word, in which case you should get the word with the contextual definition.  A few possible highlighting strategies to consider include highlighting key vocabulary,  main ideas and supporting details; first and last summary sentences SQRHR, and chapter structure.  The chapter structure highlighting strategy is where you also highlight all section titles: chapter name, section name, heading name, etc -this creates an outline based on the book and you would also use the one of the content strategies with it to get main idea sentences such as SQRHR. SQRHR stands for Scan - Question - Read - Highlight - Review: Scan the content before reading, develop a question, read the paragraph, highlight the answer or main idea, and then review the highlight to see if it is correct. 

At first this collection of highlights out of context may not seem very effective - but if you are using good highlighting strategies it can be extremely effective. Consider if you had highlighted the 10% of the text that was important - lets actually figure it to be more like 20-30% to collect the surrounding text instead of just the word. Then, when you go to review the chapter, you could start by just re-reading those highlights as a separate document - just a few pages of focused content, instead of whole chapters.

One thing to do with your etextbook and your highlights that you can't do with a print book is to review the annotation highlights after you have finished a chapter or section. Do this review, not by going through each page to see what you have highlighted, instead by looking at the annotations or annotation file (my clippings) for the chapter or portion you have just read. Looking at just the annotations, does it make sense to you? Are there repeated highlighted content or content that says the same thing? Do you understand and remember what the chapter was about? Do your highlights add up to a good summary of the chapter or section?  If you have a question about any of your highlights and are using the computer application, just click on the highlight in the sidebar and the text display will shift to that section.

So now your highlighting steps for an etextbook should be:
  • First, read the section or paragraph first.
  • Next, go back through the portion of the text  highlighting the key phrases and sentences- such as introductory and concluding sentences of the paragraph, as they often summarize the important points that are discussed.
  • But be selective about your highlighting, not too much or too little - it should be somewhere between 25 and 30% for an etextbook to identify the important points.
  • Review annotation highlights for content and delete highlights that are repeated or are unnecessary. 
Syncing Highlights between devices

There are some other highlighting differences that should also be noted. First with your Kindle reader it is possible to share your highlights with others and theirs with you - this kinds of social sharing of highlights with the Kindle is under the view menu as Popular Highlights. One thing to remember though is that just because someone else marked it, doesn't mean that they were right, think back to how most people highlight about 80% of a textbook. So, at least at first, you might want to turn off the show Popular Highlights option. To turn it off, go to your device or program Preferences menu and under the Annotations options, uncheck the Enable Popular Highlights, While you are here you should also make sure that the Annotations Backup is checked.  By backing up your etextbook annotations you will have access to all your highlights across multiple devices or applications. Kindles can sync the highlight annotations between multiple Kindle applications (Kindle devices, Kindle for Android, and Kindle for iPad/iPhone), but will not sync annotation information to the free Kindle programs on the Mac, PC, or Kindle Cloud.

To enable the Kindle to sync between devices the document would need to be uploaded to a user's Kindle Library. A limitation of using the Kindle to highlight etextbooks as a study or review tool is that while all the annotations are synced between devices, the annotations done on a different device will not show up in a stand alone Kindle’s My Clippings file - the highlights will show up in the text, but not in the My Clippings file. To have all highlights also show up in the My Clippings text file, you must go to each highlight on the device, then re-highlight text - actually not a bad way to review the text anyway. If you are highlighting using the iBooks application, then it will run on iOS devices, such as the iPad and iPhone, but there currently is no desktop, laptop, or cloud version of iBooks.

Extracting the Highlights

While most ebook devices and programs are able to do the annotations, such as highlighting, there are some device/program issues that make some device applications better than others (right now as programs can change all the time). For example, while the Nook has the ability to highlight text, it currently lacks a way to export those highlights, and cannot transfer annotation information from personal documents (ebook files not purchased from Barnes and Noble), so the highlights will not synced between devices/software. This inability to transfer annotations between devices, along with an inability to access or export the annotation file creates limitations for using current Nook devices as etextbook interactive review and note-taking tools. The iBooks application will not sync annotation highlights between devices, nor is there a way to extract the highlighted text. Using etextbook files as personal document ebooks with the Kindle is currently much more effective. The Kindle has an annotation file that can exported, so the annotation file could be used in multiple applications or as a stand alone review tool, or as a reading comprehension tool where a teacher is asking for specific information to be highlighted (main characters, plot, setting elements, new vocabulary, supporting evidence, etc) . The A student using their Kindle device could extract the My Clippings file, which is a text (TXT) file of all annotations, such as the highlighted text on that Kindle. The separate highlights in the My Clippings file could then be opened in a word processor for additional notation or outlining, or the text could used in concept mapping software to create content maps for the content material.

Here the extracted highlights from CK12 Chemistry etextbook section on the scientific method have been put into outline form using a word processor.

As schools begin the process to switch from printed textbooks to electronic textbooks, we as educators will need to start teaching students the new ways to use their new textbook devices and programs to be an effective tool. There is still some clunkiness to entering highlights, such as large fingers trying to get just the right text, and there were some problems sharing the highlights between devices. On the positive side, the highlights that you create have new abilities far beyond just marks on paper, and some of the ebook devices were able to easily export or share the highlights. Ebook device and software programmers should also take note of the needs of students to make sure that all future etextbook programs have the abilities to allow students to be able to effectively annotate and access those annotations in multiple ways across multiple applications.


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