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Digital Textbooks

What's Next for E-Textbooks?

Technology is moving the digital textbook from print look-alike to next-generation learning platform.

What's Next for E-Textbooks?


The digital textbook of tomorrow probably doesn't look like a book at all. Imagine, instead, an online service that remixes itself on the fly for consumption via any device, with concepts tailored to a specific student's knowledge gaps and learning style — and examples and problems updated to immerse the learner in timely, compelling content.

Nobody is delivering that particular experience yet. In fact, most digital textbooks look just like their printed brethren with extra features tacked on, such as the ability to highlight text, insert sticky notes, look up the meaning of a word and bookmark pages. "Glorified PDFs," as Boundless CEO Ariel Diaz called them.

Still, the technology is out there to move the e-textbook beyond the "digital with extras" model. As David Anderson, executive director of higher education at the Association of American Publishers, described, learning platforms from his members incorporate text content, adaptive learning materials, quizzes, tests and games. Artificial intelligence can determine where a student is strong and weak, and "drill the student until the student performs better," he noted. The data generated through those mechanisms is sent back to the professor, "who can monitor it as the class is going along and adjust his or her instructional priorities." Those same platforms, he said, allow the faculty member to choose individual chapters from a textbook and add his or her own "extraneous materials in as part of the coursework."

CT spoke with some of the industry players to find out how they are moving toward the next-generation e-textbook.

Pearson: Integration and Interactivity

Pearson is one of the biggest education publishers in the higher ed space. Its MyLab & Mastering adaptive learning products are used by 11 million learners each year, and its digital products have eclipsed the 50 percent mark, which means it sells slightly more digital than print materials.

The company's latest digital offering, REVEL, mixes text, interactive exercises, infographics, social features and video segments for students, who can use it on their mobile devices. And it gives faculty the means to track the time students spend on each reading assignment as well as their performance on assessments. The first release, which saw immediate adoption at 50 institutions this fall, addresses three general education courses: Introduction to Psychology; Introduction to Sociology; and Public Speaking and Communications. These are areas where neither Pearson nor its competitors were solving the main problems, according to Paul Corey, Pearson Higher Education's managing director: "What we've heard over and over again from students is, 'Have everything in one place. Don't make me go to three different products to get my whole out-of-class experience. And address the affordability issue.'"

Regarding that latter item, he added, "This isn't unique to Pearson, but it turns out that we can price these initial products at 40 to 50 percent of their print product [equivalent]."

For each of the REVEL subjects, Pearson tapped interactive technology it either owns or already integrates with. The sociology course, for example, will use Social Explorer, which Pearson uses in a number of its sociology textbooks. The Web-based service provides access to current and historical census data and demographic information; users can create maps and reports to illustrate demography data and social change.

The public speaking course uses Pearson's own MediaShare, a file-upload service that lets students post speeches, visual aids, video assignments, role plays and group projects. And the psychology course uses My Virtual Child, an interactive simulation of raising a child from birth to age 18 that allows students to monitor the effect of parenting decisions over time.

Market Shifts

Simba Information reports that in a $7.18 billion market that includes sales of new textbooks, used textbooks and multimedia materials, sales of digital versions of print editions of textbooks came in at a paltry $54 million in 2013 (up 6 percent from the year before). However, sales of used textbooks (which cuts publishers out of the transaction entirely) generated 33 times more revenue: $1.8 billion in that same period, albeit down 7 percent from the previous year. At that rate of growth and shrinkage, sales of e-textbooks will finally surpass used textbooks in about 27 years — hardly the kind of optimistic outlook publishing company shareholders would be happy about.

It's in the category of "digital materials" where publishers are seeing the strongest growth — double-digit in recent years. Simba estimates that the multimedia segment, as the company calls it, generated $1.08 billion in 2013, up nearly 18 percent from 2012. That rate of growth is accelerating. As Vital Source Technologies COO Kent Freeman observed, "Publishers are turning themselves into software companies. They're fundamentally changing themselves from publishing organizations to software development houses."

McGraw-Hill: Adaptivity and Mobile

In recent years, McGraw-Hill Education has focused on morphing itself from a textbook company into a "learning technology company." According to Doug Hughes, higher ed chief sales officer, the company had to evolve to address the problems in education today: "the incredible amount of students who never complete college; the soaring student loan debt default rate; [graduates] having trouble finding the kind of jobs they want because some employers see them as not well enough prepared to enter the workforce. These are real problems. If you take a pragmatic view of the world, while the content is important, a textbook on its own is never going to meaningfully address any of those problems. More modern learning technologies do in very big ways."

A major area of technology investment for McGraw-Hill is adaptive learning: In 2013 the company acquired ALEKS, Web-based software developed with National Science Foundation money at the University of California, Irvine. Through adaptive questioning, the software assesses a student's knowledge and delivers targeted instruction on topics he or she is ready to learn next. Courses covered include mathematics, business, science and behavioral sciences.

Earlier this year, the company bought Area9, an adaptive learning company it had long teamed up with (and invested in) to develop LearnSmart, McGraw-Hill's suite of adaptive products in English/language arts and social studies. The software adjusts its content based on the student's self-professed confidence level about concepts and periodically prods the student to review the topics most likely to be forgotten over the course of the semester. The acquisition of Area9 also included a technology called SmartBook, which uses data from LearnSmart to tailor e-textbook content to students' learning needs.

Next up for McGraw-Hill, Hughes hinted: "A world-class mobile experience, to deliver all these types of cutting-edge technologies on tablet devices and mobile devices." The move to mobile fits well with international demand, Hughes noted. "If you get outside of the United States, you're going to find that a lot of countries and societies don't really even have computers, but they have mobile devices. Mobile allows a great deal of portability and interactivity of all sorts in a way that's very natural and elegant. Until recently our industry hasn't been very good at delivering in that format."

Mixing and Matching

What's the key to a more innovative curriculum? Modular content, according to Boundless CEO Ariel Diaz. "It's thinking about content on an atomic level, an individual concept, an individual image, an individual key term." By breaking up content into modules, instructors can "take it apart and have it fit their curriculum much better," he said.

To facilitate the customization of content, Boundless' instructor platform includes a content management system that controls versions on a par with GitHub, the collaborative tool for building and managing code. The result, noted Diaz, is that "every individual one of our over 10,000 modules across our 20 subjects has its own version history." When an educator customizes a given book and assigns it to students, the platform "locks" the version of the content so it doesn't change out from under them. That version is then made available to other instructors who may adopt it and make further changes. Auxiliary content such as quizzes can also be changed around, added to, deleted and revised, then fixed in place.

Modularity is an important component in adaptive learning, Diaz pointed out. "If you have modular content plus an adaptive learning engine plus a competency-based curriculum, you start getting to this world where the content is in service of the learning outcomes the students need, and you can navigate it to multiple paths on any device in a pretty elegant and useful way."

Cengage: Understanding Students

Whereas the competition is focusing on building out technology platforms, Cengage Learning is putting more emphasis on understanding what it calls the "student workflow" — what challenges the student, how the student studies, where the student goes for information and so on.

To understand the interaction between student and faculty member, the company arranged to sit in on office hours with 40 students meeting with 40 faculty members. "We did lots of interviewing afterward to see how they went," recalled Chief Product Officer Jim Donohue. "The perception from the instructor was that it was a great meeting, that the student learned a lot. The perception from the student was as if they were in a different meeting. They really mostly didn't know what was going on, didn't really feel that it answered their questions, and more importantly, didn't even know what questions they should be asking."

Cengage is now expanding that research into 21 Voices, a project intended, according to its Web page, to help Cengage employees "understand and empathize with college students in order to gain insights into their daily lives." Twenty-one college students were chosen through an application process this summer to represent different regions, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as majors and academic and extracurricular interests. Each student embodies a "persona" to help Cengage understand his or her life from "end to end," Donohue said.

On a weekly basis, participants will conduct a self-reporting activity, such as blogging, drawing or taking photos; monthly, a program researcher will talk with them about their submissions; quarterly, the researchers will spend a day with the students observing their lives; and annually, participants will attend a summit to go over the research. Students will sign one-year contracts and receive $250 per month for their efforts.

Ultimately, Cengage hopes the research will help it design products that better engage students and identify new ways to help them succeed. The company's MindTap platform, for example, is an online system that molds "MindApps" — learning resources such as readings, multimedia, interactive activities and assessments — into a "learning path" that guides the student through the curriculum. Instructors can customize the learning path for the class by mixing MindApps and other Cengage content with their own materials. An analytics dashboard available to faculty and students reports on "engagement levels," which are calculated through number of times logged in, time spent in MindTap and the types of activities accessed.

According to Donohue, MindTap will evolve to tell students where they stand in relation to the rest of their class, as well as where they stand in relation to students taking a comparable class throughout the country. It will help students understand how much time they'll need for specific activities, or create activities to suit students' time constraints. For example, if a student has five minutes available, the software creates a "learning burst" that lasts that long, giving the student something to do on a topic or area he needs to focus on.

The E-Textbook Business Model

The first forays into digital course materials were driven by cost reductions, according to Kent Freeman, COO of digital curriculum platform Vital Source Technologies. Early adopters included for-profits as well as experimental institutions, where decision-making was more centralized and individual faculty and departments had less say in adoption of a given curriculum.

What usually happens, however, is that students have to figure out where to obtain textbooks on their own — "in the local store, online, in digital form, in print form, through purchase or rental," noted Freeman. That approach "doesn't really offer the publishers any real opportunities to work the price points."

Because students have so many options for obtaining course materials, the focus on cost savings has only gotten publishers so far. But with today's increasing institutional focus on student outcomes, said Freeman, publishers are scrambling to figure out how to leverage technology to make the learning experience better. "When you think about the 'speed bumps' that have prevented digital from taking off as rapidly as it has the potential to do, the issues are all pretty familiar to our industry: the behavioral and structural challenges associated with institutions' migration to digital; the need for more compelling content that fully leverages the capabilities of technology; and the need for a better user experience," he said. "We feel like we are already making significant progress on each of these issues."

The ultimate goal for publishers: to attain institutional licensing instead of having to rely on student licensing. In that scenario, publishers could achieve "100 percent sell-through," where they're paid for every student in a class. In turn, institutions can negotiate volume discounts. "If publishers know [100 percent sell-through is] going to happen, if the institution is willing to work with the publishers and with fulfillment providers such as Vital Source, then [the institution has] gained some leverage in that conversation," explained Freeman.

Flat World: Competency Tracking

In its early days, Flat World Knowledge innovated by publishing free digital versions of its textbooks and providing instructors with an easy way to customize their content. The "free" part of the operation eventually disappeared, replaced by a $42 digital "study pass" that offers access to PDFs, mobile-compatible content and relatively run-of-the-mill study features.

The company moved back into innovator mode in January when Brandman University, a private nonprofit institution that's part of Chapman University, announced it would work with Flat World in developing the platform and content for a new online, competency-based bachelor's degree in business administration. That's a four-year degree "that is completely on the iPad," crowed Flat World CEO Chris Etesse.

As part of the deal, Flat World is building a new learning platform with some compelling capabilities. Students will be able to take proctored exams directly on the device by streaming real-time video to a company that monitors for cheating. Content can be mixed from multiple sources — Flat World, open educational resources or content licensed from other publishers — and it will all take on the same look and feel as if it came from the same source. A social platform will enable students, educators and others (including an unnamed but well known mainframe that likes to answer questions) to post questions and answer them, creating an ever-growing body of content that will live on outside of a given course's use. And the platform will allow faculty and students to track and assess mastery in project-based experiences.

A key aspect of the platform is modularity, explained Etesse. Flat World's instructional designers are working with Brandman's faculty "to curate 38 courses, map them to 88 competencies, 367 learning objectives, 1,500 topics [and] 5,000 concepts," he said. If students are struggling with a given concept, the professor can swap out the content and even do testing on various approaches to the material. "Really, for the first time you can actually measure how different cohorts of students are learning in that experience," Etesse said. "I think it's exciting, because you could do A/B testing on what's working and what's not working."

Although the new Flat World platform will offer adaptive learning pathways, Etesse conceded that the company is "sort of in the first inning of adaptivity. There are a lot of things we don't know yet." What sets Flat World apart from other companies' efforts in this area is its decision to share its adaptive algorithm with its partner institutions. "We want to update it and modify it with [their help] rather than take a black box approach. We think you can't really do research on something unless you know exactly what's happening in that black box."

Knewton: Fine-Tuning With Data

Knewton made big news three years ago when it built an adaptive learning product for Arizona State University's remedial math courses. As students work online with Knewton Math Readiness, the program analyzes "vast amounts of anonymized data" to calculate what a student knows and how he learns best, and then recommend what he should study next, as a company-published case study states.

According to Jose Ferreira, Knewton's CEO and founder, the product was "very successful. It lowered the dropout rate at ASU by about a third." More specifically, after two semesters of use with about 2,000 developmental math students, course withdrawal rates dropped by 56 percent and pass rates increased to 75 percent from 64 percent. That was enough to convince a whole bunch of publishers — Cengage, Macmillan, Wiley, Pearson and others — to work with Knewton in integrating its adaptive technology into their course materials.

Adaptivity is in a transitional moment, Ferreira noted. One way to achieve it is to take a concept, build a quiz around it and make up "some arbitrary number" of questions the student needs to get right before moving on to the next concept. "That's the easy way to do it," he said.

The "harder" way, as Ferreira described it, is a fine-tuned, much more personalized approach. "Instead of having literally tens of thousands of sentences, the exact same ones, the same order, the same end-of-chapter practice questions, the same examples, the same difficulty levels, you get a real-time, dynamically generated textbook with optimized view down to the sentence, down to the practice question, based exactly on what you know and how you learn it best. It's like your own perfect textbook."

With Knewton, all of the student data generated through the use of those "perfect textbooks" is anonymized and analyzed to determine the next best step for people who appear to be just like the student doing the studying. "We can look at their learning graph — like a fingerprint — and say, who is like this next student?" said Ferreira. "At the time they had to learn this particular concept — cell division or subject-verb agreement or rules of exponents — they knew a lot of these other concepts that are around the level of mastery that this next student has. They had certain learning patterns or strategies that seemed to work well for them."

Sometimes, even when effort and ability are comparable across groups of students, some just turn out to be luckier than others: They studied just the right concept at the right point in the process; they answered just the right number of practice questions. The "right" approach to adaptivity, said Ferreira, takes all of that into account as well, pulling data from across multiple publishers — Knewton's customers — to find the "perfect strategy" for that student.

While Knewton has continued working with traditional publishers to develop its adaptive tech, it has also shifted its attention back to individual institutions. "In the earlier days we had to do a lot of stuff by hand. And now it's more of a seamless process," said Ferreira. "We've made it so much easier to use, we can do those kinds of small applications." In other words, if a university has developed its own course materials, it could partner with Knewton to add adaptivity directly — cutting the publishers out of the deal altogether.

What's more, in a private beta program, Knewton is developing an open adaptive learning platform that "will allow anyone to create his/her own personalized, adaptive course for free," according to a message board post soliciting beta participants. Could it be that the company is now refining and automating its techniques so precisely that it expects to be able to offer the "perfect textbook" to individual departments, faculty members or even students?

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