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Chronicle of Higher Education

October 9, 2011

New Digital Tools Let Professors Tailor Their Own Textbooks for Under $20

And that's just one option, along with mix-and-match Web sites from big publishers and libraries of open-source content


Courtesy of Daniel Flint

Daniel Flint, a professor of marketing at the U. of Tennessee at Knoxville, used a service called AcademicPub to create his own e-textbook, priced at $14.95.

By Alex Campbell

For his marketing course at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Daniel Flint wanted his students to read a white paper on public relations, a couple of case studies, an industry report, and a chapter of a forthcoming book.

So he created a textbook with just that—more than 100 pages of material in one customized package for his students.

Mr. Flint, a professor of marketing at the university, used a new build-your-own-textbook service called AcademicPub, which arranged payment of royalties and compiled the material for publication. His students were given three options for buying the book: Download a digital edition for $14.95, get it in paperback for $27, or go for the hardcover for $45.

The idea of customized textbooks has been around for years, but until recently use of the option was rare. But these days more professors appear to be taking a Frankensteinian approach to their textbooks—making something new from spare parts, thanks to new digital tools, rather than simply assigning an existing tome.

And professors have more options to do so, with upstarts like AcademicPub, mix-and-match Web sites from major publishers, and a growing libraries of open-source content that they can edit on their own.

"It's sort of like a perfect storm for making real, substantive change" in the publishing industry, said Richard Baraniuk, a co-founder of Connexions, one of the first Web collections of free educational material. There are more and more cheaper options, with more and more credibility, as fewer and fewer students say they can afford traditional textbooks.



Custom-built textbooks from AcademicPub come in both print and electronic versions. Professors put them together on a Web site by selecting from among two million articles and monographs from 75 different academic publishers. They can also pull other material from the Internet, like newspaper articles, and the site's software will check for copyright clearances. It then formats the sources into a book with a table of contents.

Indeed, price seems to be driving the move toward customization. Creating a textbook with only what a professor plans to use, or skipping textbook publishers altogether, can greatly reduce materials' costs for students.

Some forces may limit the adoption, though, such as the limited libraries of some build-your-own-textbook services and a general reluctance by professors to try a new model.

A Publishing Upstart

AcademicPub started this April, and its leaders have expanded its library to two million pieces of content from 75 publishers, including Cambridge University Press, Princeton University Press, and Harvard and MIT's business publishers. And instructors can pull in any kind of free content from the Web, said Caroline Vanderlip, chief executive of SharedBook, which runs AcademicPub.

As professors mix and match book chapters, case studies, and journal articles, the site keeps track of how much royalties are going to cost. Once the book is made, students have the option of buying it digitally or paying an extra $10 (with an additional 3 cents per page if the book is more than one hundred pages) for the textbook.

The printed books are professionally bound in hardcover or paperback, and they can be mailed to students. Or, if professors want, students can buy them at campus bookstores.

So far, Ms. Vanderlip said, 80 percent of students using AcademicPub textbooks choose to order the printed version of their professors' textbooks.

About 600 instructors have signed up for the service so far, but Ms. Vanderlip said that the company will be making its first big push for customers this fall, as professors plan their spring courses.

But professors are often reluctant to move away from their favorite textbooks, said Albert Greco, a publishing expert and a professor of marketing at Fordham University's Gabelli School of Business. Price and convenience matter, but so do the DVD and Web extras that often come with traditional textbooks.

And AcademicPub does not have licensing with any of the textbook publishers that Mr. Greco says make up the "Big Five"—Prentice Hall, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill, John Wiley & Sons, and Macmillan. Those companies control the majority of the textbook market.

Mr. Greco said AcademicPub was a "very important opportunity for instructors," but "you need the Big Five." Otherwise, he said, many professors will look elsewhere.

Ms. Vanderlip acknowledges that the industry's giants "have their own custom-pub solutions," but she said the market is big enough that she doesn't need to aim for every professor. "It's not my goal to have every piece of content ever written," she said.

Slow but Steady Growth

Professors have long been able to tailor copyrighted textbooks, but in the past it had been a clunky process. Eric Frank, founder of Flat World Knowledge, should know.

When he worked at Pearson, the company's custom-textbook option often involved taking books apart and putting them back together at the production facility. "It's kind of like surgery with a butcher knife," he said.

Mr. Frank became interested in the growing amount of open-source online content, but he thought it was often lacking the quality of professional textbooks. So he created Flat World to bring curation to free materials. The company finds scholars willing to build peer-reviewed textbooks published under a Creative Commons license, which lets others edit and customize the books and allows students free online access to them.

Since publishing its first book in 2009, the company has seen its customer base grow to 3,000 instructors, who pick from 55 different textbooks. About 20 percent of Flat World's customers end up customizing the books they use, Mr. Frank says, though he expects that proportion soon to grow to more like 35 or 40 percent now that the company has released new tools that make it easier to do so.

Mr. Frank sees his company as a disruptive force. "We're going to go hard at the big guys," he said. Its books are meant to be used for the classes that have the most enrollment nationwide. Flat World has focused on business and economics books so far.

Open-Source Libraries

Connexions has been working to expand the use of customized textbooks as well.

The site began in 1999 as one of the first places for academics to share educational material for free online. It has accumulated thousands of users from countries all over the world. But a major difficulty for professors has always been trying to sort high-quality materials from less-reputable items.

So Connexions is pushing for work to meet higher and higher standards. It now coordinates with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to vet open-source engineering materials, for instance.

Mr. Baraniuk, the site's co-founder, sees this as a big moment in part because he keeps hearing about students going further and further into debt, and traditional textbook prices becoming harder and harder for students to afford. He says he has heard from some community-college instructors who have complained that half or more of their students are unable to afford the assigned textbooks.

The cost crunch is why Washington State is adding its own open-source repository to the fray. Thanks to a $750,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the state is gathering community-college professors to build the Open Course Library, which will feature online course materials for the state's 81 most-enrolled classes, with a price cap of $30 per course.

Staying within that cost constraint has been a challenge, however, particularly with math courses, where free high-quality content can be hard to find online, organizers say.

The 'Big Five'

The companies that make traditional textbooks have been increasing their custom-publishing offerings as well. Just last year, McGraw-Hill Higher Education unveiled Create, a Web service that lets professors pick passages from thousands of the company's textbooks, as well as law and business case studies, to make a customized edition. "We think the more all this becomes digital, the more people will want to customize," Ed Stanford, president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, told The Chronicle at the time. "And we want to be able to do that."

Macmillan Publishers has its own build-a-textbook service, too, called DynamicBooks, which offers instructors the chance to add their own material to the company's titles. DynamicBooks also gives professors $1 for each student who uses a customized copy.

Traditional publishers still customize printed books, too. Melonie D. Rasmussen, a professor of mathematics at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom, in Washington, recently used a copyrighted statistics textbook for which she didn't need all the chapters. So she contacted the publisher and asked for a shorter, cheaper book. "And they've been willing to do that," she said.

Ms. Rasmussen is also part of the state's Open Course Library project, and she has been using open content for years, but so far she is part of a small minority.

The question now is whether customization could move into the mainstream, ending the one-size-fits-all model of textbook publishing.

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