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Replacement Versus Transformation: Tips for Taking a Printed Work Digital

When educator Jonathan Blake Huer attempted to turn his print book, Be Employed When You Graduate, into an app last year, the initial reviews of the project were not exactly positive.

"I was literally a week away from launching the app," Huer told Campus Technology, "when one of my good friends told me that it wasn't very good. He said it was like I had made a play into a movie by putting a camera on a tripod in the audience. I had put months into this thing, and I thought it was awesome. That feedback was really, really painful but also very useful."

Huer took that painful feedback to heart, he said; he rethought the project and turned his lame app into an effective application, which is currently available from the App Store. Huer shared some of the lessons he learned during that project and the strategies he employed with attendees of the annual CT Forum in Long Beach, CA, in a session called "Book to App: Overcoming the Challenges of Disrupting Yourself."

Huer, who is director of emerging technologies and media development at Ball State University, talked about the differences between the first iterations of the e-book in general — those awful, clunky, PDF versions — and what has emerged as the real alternative to dead-tree tech: software applications. But converting a book to an app is a very different process from simply digitizing text.

"I found that I had to think about this thing differently," he said. "I had to ask, 'What do I want to accomplish with this app?' That was fairly easy: It was still about helping students get jobs. But I also had to ask, as a technology, what does a book have, and what does an app have? To me the book is primarily about knowledge transfer. But where in a book I could say, 'You should do this,' with an app I could create a framework that allows students to actually do it."

Huer's app provides more than 100 potential interview questions and answer tips — all from the original book — but also includes features that allow students to practice answering those questions while recording and timing their responses using a front-facing smartphone camera. Users can share their practice sessions on Facebook to get feedback from friends, and even post them to YouTube.

"This is about the difference between replacement — ebooks — and transformation — apps," he said. "And that's where the primary challenges are in this process."

Huer shared with his audience a kind of pre-flight checklist for converting a textbook into an app:

  1. What is the project really about?
  2. What is the existing artifact about?
  3. What unique qualities does the existing method/technology possess?
  4. What unique qualities does the new method/technology possess?
  5. What is the new artifact about?

"Going through these questions is just a method for getting to a clear picture of what you actually want the app to do," he said. "But it's also a pretty useful tool for helping to align your thinking with what you're really going to be able to do with the software, and what you're going to be able to take with you from the book."

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance journalist and author based in Mountain View, CA.

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