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Teaching and Learning

Developing a $10 Digital Textbook

Purdue University is reducing textbook costs with a digital publishing platform that can deliver interactive content to any device.

digital textbooks

Purdue University has been offering its Interviewing Principles and Practice course for 27 years, and has used the same textbook for all of those years. The course has one of the highest enrollments in the School of Communication, with 14 sections of 24 students each. Many of them are junior and senior students who are preparing to enter the job market and want to improve their interviewing skills.

But when the 13th and latest edition of the course textbook was released a year and a half ago, Jeralyn Faris, a continuing lecturer who teaches the course, balked at the $160 price tag for students — especially since the university used only about half of its content for the course. Even the e-textbook option from the publisher would cost students $75, and then they would lose access to the book at the end of the semester.

As a parent of eight who graduated from college debt-free, Faris is committed to helping students finish school with less debt, and she wanted to find a lower-cost textbook option. Upon hearing about Faris's concerns, the university approached her about writing a custom e-text for the course through its digital textbook development pilot program. The book, A Concise Guide to Interviewing, would cost only $10; students would have unlimited access to it after the end of the semester; and they would continue to receive any updates she made to the book. Faris jumped at the opportunity, and the university piloted her e-text in the Interviewing Principles and Practice course during the 2014-15 academic year.

Going Digital

Faris's new e-text uses the Skyepack digital publishing platform. Originally developed at Purdue University under the name Jetpack (and then split off as a separate company and rebranded), Skyepack lets faculty members develop e-texts using a Web-based interface, much like a blogging platform. Students can access Skyepack e-texts through the Apple, Android or Kindle Fire apps on their smartphone or tablet, or through a Web-based app on their laptop.

Kyle Bowen, director of education technology at Penn State University and chief technology officer of Skyepack, led the team that developed the platform in his previous role as director of informatics at Purdue. According to Bowen, one of the main drivers of the project was the desire to reduce textbook costs for students. But the team was also driven by the idea that e-textbooks could be more than just a digital manifestation of a traditional textbook, and that technology could deliver instructional material that was non-linear and incorporated media beyond just static text and images — video, embedded course discussions, student feedback, question-and-answer functions and other interactive features.

"The project was designed to reimagine instructional material to take advantage of the technologies we have today," noted Bowen. "In particular, mobile technologies — smartphones, tablets — that allow us to access this material from everywhere."

According to Bowen, many of the digital publishing tools available on the market today — most notably iBooks Author — are focused on very specific ecosystems. "Now iBooks Author is a tool that allows people to simply craft material in a number of different ways, but to get the most out of it everybody has to have an iPad," said Bowen. "Plus you have to have OSX machines or Macs to craft the content or craft the iBook in the first place."

The Skyepack development team wanted to support multiple platforms using common standards such as HTML5, so authors could develop their content in other tools and Skyepack could import that content and format it for distribution on multiple device platforms. "So as an author you don't have to know or think about what device [your content] going to be published to because Skyepack will handle that for you," said Bowen. "If you drop a video into Skyepack, it re-encodes that video in such a way that it's designed for delivery to smartphones with smaller screens, or tablets with mid-sized screens, or laptops with larger screens. It does that translation for you, and it does the same thing with text and images and the interactive tools, so it makes it possible for the author to deliver content in all of these different environments without having to understand the nuances of each individual environment."

The "pack" part of Skyepack is the platform's name for topical collections of material, similar to a chapter of a book. "Think of it as a collection of content interactions that surround a particular topic," said Bowen. "Rather than crafting the entire book, the instructor creates packs, so they can craft the e-text in an iterative or progressive fashion over time."

Piloting the Platform

During the 2014-15 school year, Purdue piloted the Skyepack e-text platform in eight of its courses. The university is continuing the pilot program for the 2015-16 school year, with 11 more e-texts under development or already available. Purdue faculty are free to work with Skyepack to develop a e-texts or other open educational resources (OER) on their own, but those who want to be part of the university's official digital textbook development pilot program go through a vetting process. "We currently only accept proposals that would save Purdue students money, or that are innovative," said Robby Crain, project manager in the Innovations in Technology & Learning (ITaP) department at Purdue. "Sometimes people apply to work with us on stuff that isn't necessarily within the scope of this pilot, so we work with them to find alternatives."

Faculty who are accepted into the program work closely with ITaP throughout the e-text development process. "If we accept them into the program, we work with them to set up goals and deadlines," said Crain. "We help them with formatting and best practices, and then we copy edit it and send it on to Skyepack." ITaP also works with the authors to help ensure that the e-texts are accessible to students with disabilities.

Faculty who take part in the pilot program earn a stipend of several thousand dollars and agree to use the book for two years. The e-text is made available to students for $10 to $20, depending on whether the author opted to receive royalties for the book. The university also allows its instructors to retain ownership of their e-text content. "We just help them produce the content, we don't own it," said Crain. "The instructors tend to like that."

As a faculty member selected to participate in the pilot program, Faris wrote A Concise Guide to Interviewing during the fall 2014 semester. "I wrote it as the semester progressed, so I was getting feedback from the students [along the way]," said Faris "And then in December I finished the book, and it was ready to go for the January semester."

Faris is pleased with the results, especially because it saves students so much money. "The textbook companies say, 'Oh, we can save the students a lot of money by providing this textbook as an e-version,' but they only provide it for a few weeks after the semester is over and then the students lose it," said Faris. "But this book, they can keep it permanently, and they get any updates. If I add a chapter, if I update things and change things — which I will — then they get to keep those. To me, that's pretty cool."

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