Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

What Makes Disruptive Digital Textbooks?

Free Textbooks Spell Disruption for College Publishers – this is how Technology Review talked about Boundless Learning, a Boston company that has begun giving away free electronic textbooks covering college subjects like American history, anatomy and physiology, economics, and psychology. Ariel Diaz started this company in 2011.

What’s controversial is how Boundless creates these texts. The company trawls for public material on sites like Wikipedia and then crafts it into online books whose chapters track closely to those of top-selling college titles. In April, Boundless was sued by several large publishers who accused the startup of engaging in “the business model of theft.”

Theft or not, the college textbook industry is ripe for a disruptive shock from the Internet. Publishers today operate using what Mark Perry, a professor at the University of Michigan, calls a “cartel-style” model: students are required to buy specific texts at high prices. Perry has calculated that prices for textbooks have been rising at three times the rate of inflation since the 1980s.

Unlike publishers, who market their books to professors, Diaz’s company is aiming directly at students.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown has signed two bills (SB 1052 and SB 1053) that will provide for the creation of free, openly licensed digital textbooks for the 50 most popular lower-division college courses offered by California colleges. The legislation was introduced by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and passed by the California Senate and Assembly in late August. A crucial component of the California legislation is that the textbooks developed will be made available under the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY).

digital textbook

Amazon sells even more digital books than print editions, yet ebooks accounted for only 2.5% of the higher ed market in 2011. Moreover, students themselves — most of whom are constantly plugged in — don’t seem to like them. An article “Can eTexts Work for Your University?” from New Media Consortium pointed to a research report : Internet2 eTextbook Spring 2012 Pilot Final Project Report revealed more details about this topic. (participating institutions: Cornell University, Indiana University, University of Minnesota, University of Virginia, University of Wisconsin)

How Did Students Access the eTexts? The project leveraged the “Courseload” eReader application which was integrated with course management systems at individual institutions. For the pilot project, one publisher (McGraw‐Hill) provided the electronic texts. These materials could be used on a variety of computers or printed out at a nominal cost.

Research Study: As part of the project, the participating institutions agreed to collaborate on an evaluation of the eTextbook pilot. All institutions used a student survey and faculty interview protocol with a common set of questions (additional questions could be added by each institution) and usage data from Courseload. Some institutions also conducted student focus groups. As part of the overall evaluation effort, a separate accessibility study was carried out on the Courseload platform by the University of Minnesota Office of Disability Services.

Research Results: Major findings included:
 Only a minority of users elected to purchase a paper copy (12%).
 The lower cost of an eTextbook was considered the most important factor for students considering future purchase of an eText.
 The portability of eTexts also ranked very high as a factor leading to future purchase.
 Other important factors in future eText purchases included that it should be accessible without an internet connection and available throughout a student’s academic career, not just for a semester.
 Difficult readability of the text (e.g., difficult zoom feature) was mentioned numerous times by students as well as lack of native functionality on tablets such as the iPad.
 Faculty, for the most part, did not report using the enhanced eText features (sharing notes, tracking students, question/answer, additional links, etc.) and indicated the need for additional training.
 Because faculty did not use the enhanced features students saw little benefit from the eText platform’s capability of promoting collaboration with other students or with the professor.

It seems in the transition into digital textbooks a lot of considerations should be in place, just digitized content isn’t enough to bring mass adoption. And most educators and learners are not leveraging the full potential of digital textbooks yet. But it’s sure that we could expect a meaningful shift on what a textbook should be in near future.


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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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