Cal Poly Pomona tests new textbook technologies program from McGraw-Hill, students identify kinks in system yet believe digital texts are way of future

POMONA, California , May 20, 2013 (press release) – Engineers and other technical majors at Cal Poly Pomona are no strangers to heavy textbooks that strain the seams on their book bags.

But a digital textbook pilot program at the school may help ease the pain for future students.

The school was one of 25 last fall that participated in a test of new textbook technologies from publishers McGraw-Hill.

For electrical and computer engineering major Alex Baldwin, the e-textbook replaced a hard copy version of his materials engineering textbook in his Introduction to Electrical Properties class.

"It is a pretty hefty book, yeah," he said.

"I already have back problems, so I can't carry those books all the time and I leave them at home. "

That's an outdated model, according to one publishing company representative.

"We have to shift the conversation away from outmoded textbooks," said Tom Malek, senior vice president of Learning Solutions and Services at McGraw-Hill Education.

The model of publishers producing an expensive new edition of a textbook every few years that is almost instantly outdated in the Internet era doesn't make sense, he said.

"We are at the risk of alienating customers," Malek said. "We can't sustain the trajectory we're going in a print-based world. "

The costs of traditional textbooks are a big issue for electrical and computer engineering major Gregg Orenstein.

"To me the impact (of switching) would be financial, since the e-books are far less expensive than their hard copy textbooks," he said.

Orenstein can't afford a laptop and carries his textbooks to class. He accessed the e-textbook via his home computer.

"For me, it comes down to price point, rather than convenience," he said.

Some textbooks are already available in digital formats, especially as Adobe PDF files. But those aren't much better than old-fashioned paper textbooks, Malek said.

"The design for most PDF readers is rudimentary and clunky and doesn't add anything meaningful to the learning experience," he said.

For starters, textbook text should stay up to date.

"Newspapers have had a daily or weekly revision cycle, but now it's always on," Malek said. "Shouldn't textbooks have some currency like that? "

The interface also allowed students make and share notes on the e-book.

"I didn't ever make notes, or read anybody else's note, but I did read the teacher's notes: 'Oh, she thinks this is important,'" Baldwin said. "It's like the teacher gave you her old book. " Of course, the teacher has to go out and do that, but the important thing the option is there. "

The interface also allows the books to serve as a direct form of communication between the students, teacher and even authors.

"You could highlight text and send it to a faculty member with a question," said Susan Reese, projects and services manager, instructional and informational technology at Cal Poly Pomona.

"If you read something and you're confused, or don't understand something," a reader can highlight it, Malek said.

That feedback make its way back to the author, "who will always be happy to clarify things. "

The company hopes to have the technology widely available in the next few years, Malek said.

"When you start getting into that environment, it starts to be a very personalized experience," comparable to having a personal tutor, he said. "The experience I believe that most people will have is through an assessment or adaptive learning."

One thing McGraw-Hill doesn't want to do is choose sides in the battles between various platforms: The technology needs to be "platform agnostic," Malek said, and work wherever students need it to work.

"It has to work on a computer, it has to work on a tablet, it has to work on a smart phone," he said. "You have to have print on demand. "

Baldwin accessed the textbook via his smartphone's browser, which was convenient, if not ideal.

"Others had tablets; that's a lot better. If I had $100 laying around, I would go out and buy a tablet tomorrow," he said.

Five to 10 instructors at each university in the pilot program offered the books to their students, and their feedback is being used to shape future development of the software, Malek said.

"They're going to shape how it works. "

"They get more than a textbook," Reese said. "We're looking forward to seeing the other features."

McGraw-Hill is hoping to include in future tests, including animation and enhanced interactivity.

A total of 719 students in 15 classes participated in Cal Poly Pomona's pilot program last fall. The classes range from traditional engineering majors to kinesiology.

"We wanted a variety of classes, so we could hear from a variety of (students in different) disciplines," Reese said.

There are also kinks still to be worked out:

"The scan quality of the (material sciences) textbook was rather low," Orenstein said, "and since it's full of equations, occasionally the vertical sign wasn't being picked up by the scan and pluses were being turned into minuses. "

Still, both students were confident that electronic textbooks are the future.

"As the oldest son of five, I'm very happy that by the time my siblings get into college, this will be fully implemented," Baldwin said.


(c)2013 the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, Calif.)

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