Today I had my mental model* of the e-book completely shook up.

I went to a brown bag presentation here on the UIUC campus called “Encounters with E-Texts“.  Catherine Prendergast from the Undergraduate Rhetoric Program talked about the adoption of an in-house developed e-textbook for the freshman composition classes.  Here’s the description that went out to campus listservs: “Cathy Prendergast discusses the process of adopting an e-text from preliminary research and implementation to student evaluation and feedback. Join us for a peek between the pages of teaching with e- textbooks.”

My notes below from the brown bag might not be entirely accurate, so please keep a look out for the video of the talk which will be up on the brown bag website eventually. [ Update: video is available here ]

The Undergraduate Rhetoric Program:

  • 4,000 students per year
  • 65 Teaching Assistants (graduate students)
  • 27 Adjunct Instructors
  • new paper textbooks every 3 years, roughly
  • students usually have to pay about $130 for the paper textbooks

Prendergast devoted a year and collaborated with several campus departments to develop a UIUC-centric textbook that would work better for the Rhetoric Program, be accessible, be cheaper for the students, be more flexible and allow more creativity.

Now, when I first saw the brief description for this brown bag, I imagine the kind of e-books I’m used to reading on my iPhone:  basic epub files that I downloaded from or Project Gutenberg, mostly fiction that doesn’t have any fancy formatting, looks pretty much just like a paper book.

The e-textbook for the Rhetoric Program, however, is a different animal altogether.  The keywords here are *flexible* and *interactive*.  I don’t mean the old-fashioned “ooo, we have hyperlinks” interactive.  Prendergast and her colleagues went out to professors in other disciplines at UIUC and interviewed them about citation styles, research methods and other writing issues, then incorporated these interviews as videos into the textbook.

But the most surprising part to me was how customizable the instructors wanted this text to be.  The Rhetoric Department includes several different classes, each taught by several different instructors.  They wanted to be able to rearrange the chapters for each class (the students purchase a log-in to the book, which then identifies them to a specific section and instructor).  Plus, the instructors can leave different “notes” throughout the text, which look like small thumbtacks off to the margin with prompts like “Think about such-and-such questions while reading this section.” or “Be prepared to discuss your reaction to this part in class.” Even though all the classes are using the same e-textbook, each instructor can tailor the experience for their students from within the text itself – setting up links to other sections of the book, inserting exercises, incorporating media.  What they envision this being in the end is a textbook and an LMS (like Blackboard, Compass) all rolled into one.

At first, the Rhetoric Department went with a vendor to distribute this e-textbook, which turned out to be a miserable experience.  But – very wisely – the department kept the copyright (and receives the royalties!  which will be funding better equipment in classrooms to view these e-texts).  So now they are in collaboration with another unit on campus to get the e-textbook made the way they originally wanted.  They hope to have it ready for the fall semester of 2010.  I’m very excited to see how it turns out.  More than anything, I’m blown away by how different the e-textbook could be from the traditional paper textbook I grew up with.  Although there are some aspects of the e-textbooks that I don’t like (won’t go into those details here though), I do see this move toward fluid, non-linear textbooks as a step toward some amazing learning tools.  This has completely changed my thoughts on what the textbook might look like 10 years from now.


* For a great discussion of mental models and looking at our assumptions, see the TED Talks “Weird, or just different?” and “What we think we know”.