Textbooks as bait for “engagement”

Yesterday, the Wired Campus blog reported that CourseSmart will begin piloting an analytics feature in their electronic textbooks:

The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.

I’ve speculated about this before, but was wrong about it in two ways. First, I didn’t believe the publishers would do it because I didn’t see how it supported their business. That was short-sighted, and I’ll comment more on it later. If they did it, I predicted it would be used for something other than the current plans. On one count, I was dead on: the data will flow into the course management system.

I was thinking about it (of course) from the standpoint of a teacher, and the fundamental utility I saw for a feedback loop was to improve student learning. I envisioned a system whereby the textbook improved as students used it and were evaluated. If students show poor understanding of a particular process after studying from the book, change the book and try again. Or better yet, set up A/B testing on a chapter-by-chapter basis and do performance evaluation on the learning results. This is the approach that big internet companies use to make nearly every decision that makes them money.

But this is not the plan, at least not yet. No, the tracking will focus on collecting information on “student engagement,” allowing faculty (or administrators) to identify disengaged students before they fail out or leave the school. This is too bad, a missed opportunity to impact learning more directly. But it does answer the previous question I had about the business incentive to build this kind of system. Administrators are keenly interested in metrics for “student engagement”, and are increasingly wiling to pay for it. Integrating the data with the CMS gives the publisher a feature than can differentiate them from competitors in an increasingly competitive market for these systems. In a sense then, this isn’t about textbooks at all. The text is merely the content with which the student engages, the bait. The engagement is the thing, or more precisely, the data and analytics surrounding engagement.


Re-imagining my intro biology class – First steps

I spent the better part of the morning today beginning to re-imagine my intro biology class for the fall, even though I should probably be doing other things more related to research. I’m taking advantage of switching to a new textbook to revamp the whole class from the ground up. Here are my main objectives with the rewrite:

  • spend as little time as possible “covering” material in class
  • use class time to allow students to interact with concepts and apply ideas to real-world problems in small groups rather than transcribing lecture notes

My approach relies heavily on students having read the material before class, so I’m starting with the readings. The Principles site makes it relatively easy to customize the readings, including both the selection and order. It’s a little annoying that their metaphor is “customizing a book” and then “publishing” the custom text. I would like it better if it were easier to add, subtract, and move modules around more dynamically as I assign due dates and create assignments. But other than that, it doesn’t try to impose any additional structure on the course, which I like. I’ve complained before about the proliferation of buckets in the LMS (pages, content, files, documents, etc), and this site does not use such arbitrary categories.

The main thing I’m struggling with is predicting how much time I’ll need for each topic and set of objectives. It’s hard to get out of the mindset of, “How long will it take to walk through this topic from start to finish in front of the class” and instead think about questions, projects, and problems that would help the students apply and synthesize these concepts. I have to admit, at this point sticking with the tried-and-true lecture format sounds much easier, but I really want to try something new (and hopefully more effective).

Students becoming less dependent on physical books?

Inside Higher Ed has an update on electronic textbook adoption which is mostly uninteresting to me except for this bit:

Nevertheless, students’ allegiance to print appears to be eroding; among those who did not purchase a digital text, only 39 percent said they “prefer traditional print textbooks” — down from 50 percent two years ago and 59 percent three years ago.

Student habit and comfort level is one of the hardest things to change, and this survey suggests that college students are quickly dropping their insistence on a physical, paper book. If this is true, this will open up the field to all kinds of experimental approaches to textbooks. I’ll be finding out soon enough with my fall class how comfortable students are with a fairly radical electronic “book”.

Switching to an online-only biology textbook

Now that summer session is behind me, I’m looking forward to starting to work on my Intro Cell Biology class for the fall. This year I’ve adopted a new textbook that is completely online, Principles of Biology. It is published by Nature Education as part of their Principles of Science series of textbooks. I’ve taught the class three times now, each time using the massive Raven Biology textbook. So why switch?

The short answer is, so that my students will read the text. With the encyclopedic Raven text, I found that the material for any given class topic was spread across a large swath of the book, with plenty of distraction that I had to ask the students to skip or ignore temporarily. With the Principles book, it is broken down into modules, each of which seems to be much more digestible at a single sitting. My hope is to be able to assign a module per class session, sometimes two, and expect that the students will arrive having read it already. That way, we can spend our time together discussing the topic in small groups and attempting to apply it to a real-life problem or question in biology rather than plowing through the material and introducing everything.

I do have some hesitations though, the first of which is that students really like to have a physical textbook. No matter how much they complain about cost and weight, they feel secure just holding their book. With an online-only text, I worry they will feel like they still need to buy a “real” book. I plan to discourage them from this as much as possible, but they may still buy it. Which brings me to my second concern, that our other introductory course is still using the Raven text. For the past 3 years, students who’ve taken both intro courses have been able to use the same text for both. Given that it costs nearly $US200, that was at least some consolation. I was unable to convince any of my colleagues who teach the other course to adopt the Nature Principles text yet, although many expressed interest in it for the future.

Why this text, though, and not just the eText version of Raven? I’ve addressed that at length in previous posts, but suffice to say I’m not a big fan of most of the eText versions I’ve seen, with the exception of the Inkling version. The others are poor quality, difficult to read, and have a strict time limit (they expire). I’ve provided links to the etext versions the past two years, but none of the students have opted for it. With the Principles book, the students are buying lifelong access to a quality text (and other ancillary tools) from a highly reputable source, and the cost is far cheaper than the others. It just seems like a better deal all around. I’ll be writing here about the process of customization as I build my course, so check back as the summer wears on.

Thoughts on the Current State of Electronic Textbooks

Over the past 9 months, I have been using electronic versions of the textbooks I have adopted for my classes. My main motivation was to avoid the need to carry a text back and forth between office and home, a nuisance that I resolved in the past by asking the publisher for an additional copy, the cost of which, no doubt, was passed along to students in the form of higher prices. Occasionally, I could borrow a copy from a colleague to keep at home, assuming we used the same text and we were not teaching from it in the same semester.

The two main vendors I have experience with so far are CourseSmart and Inkling. CourseSmart has the far greater number of titles available as of now, but Inkling just announced more support from publishers recently as well, so we’re clearly very early in this game.

Leasing Leads to Lousy Legibility?

Plenty of people have complained about the lack of imagination represented by the CourseSmart approach, essentially shoe-horning all of the trappings of a printed book into a digital form. I agree with many of these complaints, but it is also safe and low-risk, so I don’t fault them for starting here. Where I do have a complaint with the CourseSmart titles, however, is the poor typographical quality. And I don’t mean just in some esoteric, fancy-font-picking sense, I mean the characters in these titles are borderline illegible. It appears that they run each page image through some kind of machine that crappifies the text and introduce a not-so-secret watermark on the page at the same time. Hoping that the version rendered through the iPad app would not suffer from the same crappification, I logged in to my account from there, only to find the same lousy typography. They seem to have found a way to make the iPad look bad, which I didn’t even think was possible when it comes to typography. I’ve copied some sample screen captures from the iPad below for reference.

I’m guessing that this DRM layer, and the resulting reduction in quality, is due in part to their business model. Rather than selling a digital copy of the book to a person, they are leasing access to the information on a temporary basis. When a student “buys” a CourseSmart title, they have access to it for 180 or 360 days. The upside of this arrangement is a lower cost than the printed-and-bound version bought new, and the ability to access the book anywhere over the web, including on the iPad and other mobile devices. In most cases, I could most likely find a used copy of the book for the same cost or cheaper and either keep it forever or resell it at the end of the semester. If I knew in advance I didn’t want to keep the book, I could rent it from Chegg or some other textbook rental site for even less. I would have given up the ability to access the electronic book from anywhere, but given the poor legibility of the CourseSmart copy as it stands, so what?

While I have been disappointed with CourseSmart books in terms of legibility, their selection is awesome, and their tight integration with textbook publishers pays off. My textbook publisher representative can simply grant access to ‘exam copies’ within CourseSmart and I can look them over wherever I am. This saves an awful lot on receiving unwanted, unrequested textbooks. This pays off for the textbook companies in another way, I’m sure, which is that they can track how thoroughly I’ve reviewed one of their titles. I don’t know for sure whether CourseSmart is providing tracking data back to the publisher, but I’m sure they will soon. It just makes sense to collect this information and use it to improve your sales approach and/or to improve the textbook.

The First Inklings of a Better Book

Rather than take the static textbook and copy it over into the digital realm, the folks behind Inkling are trying to re-imagine what a textbook could be. The first improvement over a CourseSmart version to mention is that the text is not degraded, it’s nice and crisp, with selectable sizing and copy-and-paste functionality. This is because it’s real text and not a hyper-processed image of a page. Another huge advantage is the navigation tools for getting around the book. It’s like they’re assuming you might actually want to jump from section to section quickly, say, to refer back to that section about organic functional groups while reading about cell metabolism. This issue of scanning and discovery is always a problem in an electronic document because I always feel like any “page” not visible has disappeared from reality until I summon it back open. I think the navigation tools in an Inkling book do a lot to circumvent this problem for the reader. Add to that the more interactive nature of an Inkling title (at least the Biology volume I’ve used), including definitions for new terms and expandable figures, and it’s clear this publisher has taken an earnest step into the new medium.

I think there are at least two reasons why Inkling can provide a higher-quality reading experience. First, they aren’t playing games with their sales. When you buy an Inkling chapter, it’s yours. It lives on your iPad and it doesn’t expire. Chapters cost $2.99, and buying a whole book typically gives a discount over buying the chapters individually. So this is more expensive, but it’s yours. Can you tell I’m not crazy about the rental model? I feel like the Inkling model is a more honest way to sell a book. Secondly, Inkling is providing real text and real graphics that are high-quality, resizable, real. How can they do this? Because an Inkling book is actually something like a book “browser” or reading platform that assembles these parts into a complete experience in real-time. The only place it can live is on an iPad (for now), so the risk of piracy is effectively nil.

The major downside so far with Inkling is the dearth of titles and the lack of integration with publishers. By integration, I’m referring to access to complementary exam copies. I’ve personally paid for the Inkling chapters I’ve used so far, which is something I’m not altogether opposed to, but it would be nice to see something more like the CourseSmart model described above. The recent announcement by Inkling (mentioned above) of support from more publishers holds the hope that both of these weaknesses are being addressed. Who knows though, maybe the exam copy issue is not resolvable given the constraints of the Apple app store and the purchase process therein. It may not matter though, because if the quality is good enough, it’s worth paying for.