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The latest publishing sales figures show a sharp rise in the sales of E-Books at the same time that the total number of book sales on all platforms took a minor hit. In their just released January 2011 sales report, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) noted a 115.8% increase in net sales of e-books from the previous year while overall book sales dropped by 1.9%.

In higher education, one of the pressing questions will be how might this change in reading affect the textbook market? Will students and instructors embrace digital texts? The social learning platform Xplana projects that by the end of 2011, 3% of the total textbook market will be digital and that growth will be explosive over the next five years. By the end of 2016, they expect the total sales of digital textbooks to reach 26% of all new textbooks.

The advent of new reading platforms suggests the possibility to develop new ways of interacting with learning material. While some publishers might simply settle to replicate a print product in a digital form, other more innovative developers might embed assessments or opportunities for reflection within the text. User-controlled multimedia might help students replay presentations or simulate experiments. Books that are built for collaboration might help students jointly annotate a text or read annotations by their own instructor. There are many ways a new textbook could evolve, and let's hope that with such stunning sales figures and projections, publishers and authors seize this moment to reinvent rather than replicate the text.

One quick trip to the recent past of the internet via the wonderfully time-wasting WayBackMachine is enough to remind us of all of the "creative" uses of font manipulation in what passed for information design. Who knew that these skills would one day come in handy?

According to a recent study, non-standard and varied type fonts can create "desirable difficulties" and create additional cognitive loads that tend to improve learning. The results seem counter intuitive. Most instructors strive to create easy-to-receive lessons, and students perceive that a lesson is successful if they feel they have had a relatively easy time learning the material. However, disfluency--"the subjective, metacognitive experience of difficulty associated with cognitive tasks"--has, in some cases, been shown to direct students to "process information more deeply, more abstractly, more carefully, and yield better comprehension." One key mechanism in these results seems to be the idea that disfluency (say, difficult to read type faces) cues a learner to be less confident that they have actually learned what they just read. As a result, there is a greater chance that they might engage the material with greater effort and in a more complex fashion. In their study, "Fortune favors the bold and the italicized: Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes," Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan conclude that "Student retention of material across a wide range of subjects (science and humanities classes) and difficulty levels (regular, Honors and Advanced Placement) can be significantly improved in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material in a format that is slightly hard to read."

See: Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Vaughan, E. B. (Forthcoming). Fortune favors the bold and the italicized: Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition.