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eText: Is It Ready? Are We Ready?

After spending a significant portion of the past two years researching and "test driving" eText in the many formats and sources that currently exist, I have come to a number of initial conclusions about the nature and application of eText in higher education (the educational level to which I limited my studies and investigation). I've seen that most of the possible implementation strategies for eText seem quite logical and are based on existing technologies that have been available to the higher education community for some time. But there is still a problem holding us back--a problem that lies in the fact that defining, combining, and implementing eText components has as yet been accomplished only on a very limited basis and by only a few "technologically entrepreneurial" institutions. Large-scale eText implementation is a task that has been identified as too daunting, too difficult, and it is the perhaps the most significant replacement ever, of an educational tradition that has served higher education well for centuries.

What are some of the attributes of eText, and what are the related issues institutions looking into eText are considering? The creation of fully interactive, technology-robust eText (not simply a scanned copy of a paper textbook) should include the following components, each of which should be considered by institutions planning an eText implementation:

A Universal eReader Software Platform: The adoption of an eReader software platform that supports any eText that has been either converted from existing hardback textbooks or created by aggregating digital content from any source, is critical. College and university students will demand one means of accessing their eTexts, not multiple open or proprietary platforms at the same time. Keep it simple; one fully functional eReader software platform that is agnostic of source, device, or learning management system (LMS).

Open Device Requirements: eTexts and eReader software platforms should be hardware-agnostic and support a majority of existing computer or reader devices (with varying degrees of functionality). Students should make the choice to use the device they may already own or to acquire a device that best takes advantage of the functionalities provided by the eReader software platform or digital content provider, or simply decide based on cost.

Technology Integration: The components of eTexts must be integrated and not limited to sole source hardware, software,  LMS, or other components; rather, these technologies should be available to be integrated by an institution to best serve the needs of their students and faculty.

eText Implementation: An institution will maximize the success of its conversion from text to eText if it is adopted by faculty willing to "pioneer" this technology and by students who elect to participate in eText pilots and initial adoptions. This is clearly the "cat out of the box" scenario. Once eText instructional benefits and the drastic cost reduction of eText are experienced by students, the student demand for this technology will be unharnessed. Institutions and faculty will, over some short or long period of time, find the implementation of eText as apparent as converting former manual systems to automated systems.

eText Access: The eText should be available to the student reader both onine (via the Web) and offline (residing on their computer or eReader device). This multiple access maximizes student learning time. Online and offline eText must sync as students pass between modes.

100 Percent Sell-Through: It's clear that the cost of the eText will be reduced most significantly when the institution provides every student in an eText adopting section, an Text, via the institution's registration process, much like a required laboratory fee. If textbooks are an essential instructional tool, and if current textbook acquisition by students is far less than acceptable (e.g., as much as 50 percent of students do not acquire a textbook, or acquire it too late), then providing 100 percent of students an eText via the existing registration process, at a fraction of the cost of hardback textbooks, should be highly desirable.

Print Demand: Students should be provided multiple means of printed text, both formally (third party) and in a print-on-demand basis. This can be accomplished via multiple means and varied levels of cost, far less than current cost of retail hardback sources, used textbook sources, textbook rentals, and other existing sources for textbooks. Early studies show that printing demands are modest and quite often limited to content that has been digitally "highlighted," annotated, or noted in some fashion (possibly as a way to study for an exam).

Digital Exchange: eReader software platforms must provide students and faculty with a means to exchange text-related activities such as highlighting, notes, annotations, articles, cases, video, audio, and more, in digital format.

Analytics: eReader software platforms must provide analytical capabilities to serve to identify potential student learning deficiencies or opportunities. With eText we will have a means to capture data on student use of the material, areas of concern, attempts/successes/failures of content knowledge transference, time spent on task (i.e., not just online), and so on. This data may be used to offer prescriptive solutions to improve completion, retention, and GPA.

These eText attributes illustrate a few of the many advantages that eText brings to the teaching/earning process. eText is ready... are we? Only time will tell, and the time to find out is now.

About the Author

Rand Spiwak is CEO of eTextConsult, a consultancy focused on helping institutions implement e-text programs. He formerly served as executive vice president and chief financial officer in the Florida College System, where he served more than 40 years in three Florida community/state colleges.

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