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Next-Generation Textbooks: Book Smarts

Next-Generation TextbooksWith textbooks and other forms of scholarship moving to electronic formats, schools are turning to a surprising array of innovative tools.

That creaky spine. The yellowing paper. Those eternally typeset words. Why do we still love the printed page? In the age of electronic media, some say producing textbooks is a dying art. And it may be true that every day, devices with names such as iPod and eBook threaten to replace the age-old “technology” of the traditional book with a newer, faster, and equally (if not more) portable approach. In many cases, at colleges and universities across the nation, students and teachers alike are embracing these new technologies.

At the University of Virginia, for instance, technologists have created an entire library of e-texts designed to eliminate the process of taking out books. Elsewhere, at schools such as Central Florida Community College, Valencia Community College (FL), West Chester University (PA), and Indiana University, technology leaders have embraced a variety of vendor tools that combine traditional textbooks with eLearning, for an entirely new experience. These tools differ in scope and approach from more traditional learning materials, but it appears that across the board, they work.

Nobody knows what lies ahead for old-fashioned books, but as it becomes easier to grant reproduction permission online, and as textbook prices continue to rise, one can only wonder: Will the book go the way of the Dodo bird and someday be studied on an eBook, as scholarship of the past? Will book-based learning survive the onslaught from the learning technology sector? Will colleges and universities move in a different direction entirely, linking learning forever to cutting-edge technological development? Only time will tell.

Blazing New Trails

Clearly, there’s a fine distinction between digital libraries and digital scholarship. The former house the latter, which usually are electronic copies of printed works. At the University of Virginia, which houses one of the most respected digital libraries in academia, librarians have made this distinction for years. The school used to separate its digital scholarship material into two camps: the E-Text Center and the Rare Materials Digital Services Center, which preserved rare materials in electronic form. Earlier this year, the groups came together under a new Digital Research and Instructional Services department.

The new department contains everything from electronic maps to social science data sets; from journal articles to book chapters. Seen another way, it boasts electronic versions of just about everything a reader might find in an average textbook. Works in this new department are much more than just electronic copies of physical documents; instead, all of the pieces have been digitized and marked up by certain scholars to enhance the original content. Donna Tolson, director of Outreach and Instructional Services, says the approach makes learning so easy that students don’t even realize they’re doing it.

“The medium is now so engaging,” she explains (referring to age-old textbooks as “useful but dry” to most students), “it allows you to access this information in many more multifaceted ways than the printed book has done over time.”

Within the new department, a number of individual resources have taken the place of textbooks for particular fields. The Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library, for instance, is a clearinghouse for marked-up texts, maps, data charts, photos and more—all in electronic versions that are perfectly accessible from any computer in the world. Another example: the school’s renowned Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, which provides electronic copies of data for architecture, planning, and other civil engineering disciplines.

Writing on the eWall

MOVE OVER eBOOKS: There’s a brand-new single-screen technology that makes the digital reading experience even better. The technology, dubbed electronic ink, provides clarity and resolution that rival paper itself. It is the brainchild of Cambridge, MA-based vendor E Ink, and is available on a host of new products, including the new $350 Sony Reader, which can store dozens of books.

To the naked eye, E Ink displays appear to be very similar to traditional liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. But this new technology is quite different—a sophisticated, 21st-century take on the Etch-A-Sketch toy many of us grew up with. Essentially, the principal components of electronic ink are millions of tiny microcapsules, about the diameter of a human hair.

Each microcapsule contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When a negative electric field is applied, the white particles move to the top of the microcapsule, where they become visible to the user. This makes the surface appear white at that spot. At the same time, an opposite electric field pulls the black particles to the bottom of the microcapsules, where they are hidden. By reversing this process, the black particles appear at the top of the capsule, which makes the surface appear dark at that spot. Naturally, black particles at the top are what form letters and words.

With this in mind, a standard E Ink electronic display is comprised of two parts: a plastic film that contains the microcapsules and clear fluid, and a layer of circuitry underneath it.With the help of display driver software, circuits fire and adjust electric fields beneath the film, thereby altering the characters that appear on each page. As users scroll through pages of text, the characters change accordingly.

Sure, this process is unique. But particularly in the higher education environment, the technology has practical benefits, too. Screens on E Ink electronic displays reflect light like paper—requiring no front or backlight— with much higher resolution than an LCD or computer display. Furthermore, because the technology uses power only when refreshing new screens rather than to keep them lit, users can go 7,500 pages without recharging—a true luxury in the world of eBooks. What will they think of next?

Neither of these sites compares in scope to Virginia’s biggest and boldest collection of digital scholarship materials yet: the world-famous Virginia Center for Digital History, which boasts documents, photos, videos, and more. Tolson says that in many of her school’s history classes, this site has completely replaced textbooks as the method of instruction. While she predicts professor reliance on the site will only increase in the months ahead, she is careful to note that there will always be a place for the beloved textbook in the learning environment overall.

“You can take all the data in the world and have the largest possible electronic project, but it won’t mean much unless you’ve analyzed it, taken it, and thought about what it means,” she says. “Textbooks tend to provide pathways [to learn] how to do that.”

Vendor Connections

While Virginia’s digital book and digital scholarship collections span a variety of subjects, the digital books at Indiana University are more focused on a select group of topic areas. One of these subjects is ethnomusicology, the comparative study of music of different cultures. Previously, professors used textbooks to teach this subject. Today, through a series of CD-ROMs from Heritage Muse in New York, students can access The English and Scottish Popular Ballads edited by 19th-century scholar and folklore specialist Francis James Child—a compilation of 305 songs, lyrics, maps, and audio and video clips.

“In studying specific ballad texts, students are often asked to work from a particular text: A, B, C, or what have you,” says Mary Ellen Brown, a professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. “Having a digital version makes access almost instantaneous for the students.”

Ethnomusicologists at West Chester University have just started using the same Heritage Muse CD-ROM collection. There, technologists recently have made this digital catalog available at designated computer workstations in the university library. Dick Swain, director of Library Services, says the tools go “above and beyond” the typical textbook because they permit those using and studying the ballads to link to additional versions and explanatory materials. This, in turn, allows students to better understand the basic texts, and provides them with the ability to discover relationships among the texts which previously were hidden, he says.

Ride the SafariX

DIGITAL BOOKS ARE nothing new to the folks at SafariX. The company, a joint venture between technical publishers O’Reilly Media and Pearson Education, launched in 2004 to deliver books online for up to 50 percent less than they would cost in a university bookstore. Today, through the SafariX eTextbooks Online service, the outfit has established a huge following.

Unlike an online bookstore, SafariX houses the entire, cover-to-cover digital version of books from O’Reilly and Pearson imprints: Addison Wesley Professional, Adobe Press, Cisco Press, Macromedia Press, New Riders, Peachpit Press, Prentice Hall PTR, Que Publishing, and Sams Publishing. Overall, the organization offers titles in more than 30 different subjects.

As part of this effort, SafariX also launched an online service by which teachers can create custom coursepacks and textbooks. The service, dubbed SafariU, was just the thing Jon Preston, assistant professor of IT at Clayton College and State University (GA), was looking for. Preston says for years he searched for a textbook with a particular type of content. Finally, with SafariU, he was able to create his own.

“I could pick and choose a couple of chapters from six or seven different books and put together something that was customtailored and made-to-order for the course I was teaching,” he says, noting that at a time when books are going digital, he preferred the tangible work. “I created a book because I think students appreciate having something tangible that they can bring to class; a text they can mark up and keep.”

Other schools have turned to different vendors for help integrating technology into traditional textbook offerings. At Central Florida Community College, technologists realized more than a decade ago that they needed to offer an alternative to on-campus learning for students who were at some distance or unable to commute to campus on a regular basis. To meet this need, the college implemented Plato Interactive Mathematics (Plato Learning), a multimedia instructional resource for both distance learning and on-campus courses.

Students use the interactive course software to work through problems with professors who are physically in class. If they need additional work, the instructors encourage them to refer to their textbooks and take practice quizzes and explore other selfdiagnostic features at home. Dr. Judith Wood, professor of Mathematics, says this has proven effective in decreasing dropout rates and increasing course completion rates. The same can be said for Valencia Community College, where students utilize the same Plato products, and have achieved similarly impressive results.

“The textbook is a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, but students have lots of different learning styles,” says Gisela Acosta, a professor of Mathematics at Valencia. “Our philosophy in embracing this technology was that the more instructional deliveries we offer, the better opportunities we have of reaching more students in total.”

For more ways innovative vendors are reshaping digital learning tools with cutting-edge electronic displays.

Permissions Issues

In addition to Plato, vendors such as SafariX and XanEdu are offering a hybrid approach to old and new scholarship. Over the past decade, this company made a name for itself selling coursepacks; physically bound compilations of magazine articles. Today, with the help of the Internet and Acrobat Reader from Adobe, the company now offers hybrid models of the same product—coursepacks that exist physically but also have an online component students can log into when they don’t feel like lugging around four or five pounds of photocopies.

The new Digital Research and Instructional Services department at the University of Virginia boasts electronic versions of just about everything a reader might find in an average textbook, but all of the pieces have been marked up by scholars to enhance the original content.

XanEdu hybrids are put together just like traditional coursepacks. Educators at schools such as Arizona State University submit a list of works for inclusion in the packet, and XanEdu analysts set out to find the rights to reprint these works for one-time use. Some of the permissions come directly from publishers; others must be obtained from individual rights holders. Tyler Steben, VP of Publishing for XanEdu, notes that a small percentage of documents don’t require permission at all; if the original copyright on an item has expired, the item is considered to be in the public domain, and anyone can reprint it.

“Obtaining electronic reprint rights is a complicated but critical process,” he says, pointing out that hybrid coursepack models usually require special permission for reproduction in two media, and that hybrids generally cost 15 percent more. “So long as we get permission, we can put just about any item into our coursepacks and make them available in whichever way a teacher wants.”

Rising Costs

WHY ARE TEXTBOOKS losing their luster? Prices certainly aren’t helping. According to a 2005 report on rising textbook prices from the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), a nonprofit advocacy organization, the average student pays $900 a year for textbooks, equal to nearly half of the tuition and fees of two-year public colleges and a fifth of the amount that in-state students would pay for tuition and fees at fouryear public colleges this year.

The report, titled “Rip-off 101, 2nd Edition: How the Publishing Industry’s Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs,” surveyed the most widely-used teaching texts at colleges and universities in California and Oregon, and alleged that textbook publishers artificially inflate the price of textbooks by adding bells and whistles to the current texts—forcing cheaper used books off the market by producing expensive new editions that are barely different at all.

The report also found that most of the faculty members surveyed in the report do not think many of these add-ons are useful, and are supportive of efforts to streamline textbook costs and extend the shelf life of current textbook editions. “It’s appalling that at a time when students are contending with rapidly rising college costs, textbook publishers are playing games to increase prices,” says Merriah Fairchild, the study’s author and a higher ed advocate for CALPIRG.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • Textbook prices are increasing at more than four times the inflation rate for all finished goods, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Producer Price Index. The wholesale prices charged by textbook publishers have jumped 62 percent since 1994, while prices charged for all finished goods increased only 14 percent. Similarly, the prices charged by publishers for general books increased just 19 percent during the same time period.
  • The most widely purchased textbooks on college campuses have new editions published every three years.
  • New editions of the textbooks surveyed cost an average of 45 percent more than used copies of the previous edition.
  • When issuing new editions, most publishers raise the prices of their books. Of the textbooks surveyed, new textbook prices jumped 12 percent on average between the previous and current edition, almost twice the rate of inflation between 2000 and 2003 (6.8 percent).
  • Are they justified? Three-fourths (76 percent) of the faculty surveyed in the 2004 report said that they found new editions justified only “half the time” or less.
  • Adding padding. Half (50 percent) of the textbooks in the survey were sold “bundled,” or shrink-wrapped with additional instructional materials such as CD-ROMs and workbooks.
  • Kill the add-ons. More than half of the bundled textbooks surveyed (55 percent) were not available for students to purchase a la carte, in which the textbook is available without the add-on materials.

This was the second year of the “Rip-off 101” study. The entire study can be found online HERE.

Most of the time, companies such as XanEdu use permissions clearinghouses to obtain reproduction rights. The Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) is one of the biggest permissions brokers. With the help of the firm’s Electronic Course Content Service (ECCS), instructors can obtain permissions for coursepacks and digital compendiums online. Still, according to Bill Burger, VP of Marketing for the CCC, the industry faces quite a number of challenges pertaining to rights and permissions with digital media down the road.

First and foremost on that list is securing digital content that has been reproduced legally. Burger says publishers are growing increasingly concerned that students will obtain a piece of digital content that has been reprinted with permission, then nonchalantly pass the content along to their friends, essentially breaking the law. While the CCC d'esn’t have a way to assuage these concerns, Burger says that his organization will continue to pursue the distribution of rights and permissions and ensure that if nothing else, the first reproduction of someone’s intellectual property is protected.

“This kind of transitional pain is not limited to digital books and the academic world,” he says. “It is something that will characterize the publishing industry for years and years to come.”

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