The fractured marketplace: A look at the state of e-textbook and electronic course materials

With the proliferation of mobile technologies such as the iPad and Kindle, which impacts what is possible with e-books, what constitutes a “textbook”?  What opportunities do these new technologies provide for your students to work with material in innovative ways?  Since self-publishing is becoming easier and academics are moving towards open and Creative Commons licensed content, what opportunities are there for instructors to create their own “textbook”?

The CIT has been monitoring trends in e-textbooks and, in recent months, has explored new options for the traditional classroom texts with Duke instructors.

Electronic books have been available for over a decade, with titles available for reading on computers or more primitive portable devices like the Palm Pilot.  However, these simpler devices offered few options beyond bookmarking pages or very rudimentary text annotation.  As mobile devices have grown more powerful and offered capabilities for touch screen interaction, high resolution color displays, internet connectivity and seamless web and multimedia interaction, publishers and authors are rethinking what constitutes a textbook and how textbooks are generated and offered to students.

Textbook platforms

Publishers are now offering more fully-featured textbooks through various platforms, making textbooks available through the web and mobile devices.

CourseLoad, recently piloted by Indiana University, takes the idea of annotating textbooks further by allowing students and faculty to share annotations and offering the ability for students to ask questions or give and receive answers about the material within the text.

CourseSmart iPad app
CourseSmart iPad app

Kno, piloted at Duke by Sharon Hawks in the Duke School of Nursing in Spring 2012, includes flashcards, an online journal, quizzes, 3d animations and sharing features to enhance the traditional static content of the textbook.  Dr. Cheryl Lin tested a textbook on iPads in her Markets and Management course in Fall 2011 using the CourseSmart iPad app.  Even with the more advanced interfaces and portability provided by the iPad, students in Lin’s course reported the note-taking process to be more cumbersome than using a traditional paper-based textbook.

Typically, these platforms are aimed at web viewing, but some can also be used on portable devices such as the iPad.  Publishers are also making textbook titles available through other platforms and e-book outlets for viewing on Amazon’s Kindle or Kindle app and for Apple’s iPad and iBook platform.

New opportunities for textbook authoring

Textbook authors have also been exploring new outlets for their work.  Flatworld Knowledge is probably the best-known option for online textbook publishing that uses an open textbook model.  At the site, authors can create a fully original textbook – it is open for viewing for free by students and students have the option of buying a printed version.

Flatworld Knowledge goes further by also allowing faculty to create their own textbook from components of other textbooks at the site.  Original authors retain credit and copyright, but the open textbook model allows faculty to “pick and choose” chapters and modules from different open sources to create a highly customized textbook experience for their students.  R. Preston MacAfee and Tracy Lewis of the Fuqua School of Business worked together to produce the open source textbook “Introduction to Economic Analysis” using Flatworld Knowledge.

Connexions is another site using an open source model.  Faculty can upload open source modules and assemble them into textbooks or an online course.  Earlier this year, Connexions started the OpenStax College initiative, an organization devoted to making open source peer reviewed textbooks available for free to students.

David Johnston, a Research Scientist with the Duke University Marine Laboratory in the Nicholas School of the Environment received support from the CIT to produce an interactive multimedia textbook as an iPad app, Cachalot.  Designed for students in Johnston’s Marine Megafauna class, but available free in the Apple iPad app store, the app includes content assembled by researchers in the field – video, photos, audio and sounds, class readings, tutorials and dynamic content that is updated on a regular basis.

Cachealot app
Cachealot app

Apple recently released iBooks Author, a software program for creating multimedia textbooks that can be sold or given away for free in the iBooks Store and viewed on an iPad.  While software and templates for self-publishing of books have been available for some time at sites including LuluBlurbiUniverse, and Xlibris, Apple is offering software designed especially for assembling textbooks.

The iBooks Author software includes options for inserting audio, video, and images and interactive components such as image galleries.  Authors can insert components created in HTML5 or Javascript for interactivity – a 3d model, an interactive demonstration or map, for example.  The templates include the ability to insert end of chapter self-quizzes and students can, in addition to highlighting and note-taking, create study cards based on their notes in the textbook.

iBooks Author
iBooks Author

The course materials “ecosystem”

The CIT recently did a quick survey of what faculty are using for course materials in classes in Sciences and Social Sciences.  A surprising number aren’t using a traditional textbook.  Many have students buy paperback tradebooks and academic press titles or assemble a “course pack” of journal articles, book excerpts and primary resources, with the lectures, discussions and other class activities providing an overall framework for students to explore the topics in the course.  Some courses, such as Stephen Craig’s Honors Chemistry course, have moved away from lectures and traditional textbooks to class activities and a wide range of open, web-based content.

Of course, all of this material – textbooks, trade paperbacks, journal articles and other material – isn’t available from a single source in electronic form or a single e-book platform.  Some titles can be purchased by students through sites like CourseLoad and Kno that have exclusive agreements with textbook publishers; some can be obtained through Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iBook software or for the Barnes and Noble Nook; and still others can be purchased on multi-platform epub electronic books or obtained through library subscription databases.

The consumer marketplace for texts has evolved to a point that is similar to the distribution systems for music or video.  Consumers obtain some music or video for download from iTunes, Amazon or other services.  They use subscription based streaming services such as Spotify, Netflix or Hulu that have exclusive bands, television shows or film libraries.  Websites, including Naxos Music Library and  HD Tracks, offer music or video by indie musicians or filmmakers or specialized content for enthusiasts of jazz, world music, classical, folk, historical, audiobooks, or high resolution audiophile audio.

At a large institution like Duke, faculty in a range of interdisciplinary subjects want their students to use a wide variety of original texts in their work, from instructional materials to popular books and novels to specialized academic texts.  The e-book marketplace presents challenges for faculty and the institution as we try to look at ways to offer course materials in a unified and seamless way for students to use in courses, and as we hope to reduce costs for individual students and the institution.

Universities are only one part of the overall market for electronic texts, so this fracturing of the marketplace with different platforms for different types of users may be with us for some time to come.  Faculty will need to rethink how their course materials fit into this electronic text ecosystem and the university will have to examine multiple solutions that can help make delivery of content more efficient and cost-effective for students on a broad level.

Contact the CIT

The CIT would like to hear from Duke faculty interested in exploring these new textbook models in their classes.  If you have original material you would like to assemble into an interactive textbook, ideas for an open source textbooks, or if you are interested in trying interactive textbooks available from publishers and evaluating their effectiveness in your course, contact us.