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Made to order

By Warren Cohen

Professors are scrapping conventional textbooks in favor of custom-designed digital materials that are not only more relevant but also keep student budgets intact.

When Michael Karweit, a research professor in chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, began teaching an introductory class for budding engineers six years ago, he couldn't find a suitable textbook to capture the problem-solving nature of the profession. Most of the books he examined focused on math and number crunching, so Karweit assembled his class notes and lab materials and resources culled from other universities and corporations to create his own textbook. Today, students in Karweit's “What Is Engineering?” class can read that textbook on the Internet or from a CD-ROM. Instead of dry formulas about metallurgy, Karweit's customized tome offers short movies and animations that demonstrate kinetic properties and instabilities. “It provides more a taste of what engineering is really like,” he says. “Real engineering is not doing a calculation and then checking the answer in the back of the book.”

Karweit has joined the ranks of a growing number of professors who are doing away with the bulky manuals piled in the stacks of college bookstores, replacing them instead with virtual textbooks. Customized online texts can not only incorporate rich content like interactive videos; they can also evolve as professors refine their teaching styles. Despite the initial fear that the practice could dent the $6.8 billion textbook market, traditional publishers like McGraw-Hill and John Wiley are getting in on the action by digitizing existing class materials, separating chapters, and selling them a la carte directly to students over the Net. “Generally professors are thrilled to get textbooks exactly the way they want them, plus students don't have to pay more for stuff they're not using,” says Ginny Moffat, vice president of marketing and custom publishing for McGraw-Hill Higher Education. “We're confident that we can increase textbook sales overall by giving customers what they're looking for.”

Putting a self-designed textbook together involves a lot of hard work, though. It's not just the matter of finding relevant materials and assembling them in a coherent package; there are also concerns about violating copyright law by appropriating material without permission. “If I said I put in 100,000 hours so far on mine, I'd be exaggerating, but not by much,” Karweit quips.

Obviously, the first step for a potential textbook author is to examine the resources already offered by the major publishers. Many companies have added digital versions of their textbooks to their catalogs, which can be accessed via password-protected sites on the Web and delivered in either a secure document form like Adobe Acrobat or even on a CD-ROM. Those online versions are more portable than traditional textbooks and include advanced features like digital book marking and annotations that can be saved in the text instead of scribbled in the margins. Students also get a price break. Electronic delivery of textbooks costs, on average, 15 percent less than the price of a used textbook. More than 100 schools are using McGraw-Hill's electronic textbooks, according to Moffat.

Multiple Choices

But the real advances for digital books come from the new ways of configuring materials. Instead of a professor making students purchase six textbooks from which they'll read only a few chapters, professors can simply order the relevant chapters from publishers. McGraw-Hill, for instance, has created an online system called Primis, which allows professors from all disciplines to browse through chapters from 500 textbooks. The company plans to add another 300 this year. So instead of ordering Beer-Johnson-Dewolf's Mechanics of Materials off the shelf, mechanical engineering professors can directly purchase any part of the book: the introduction, appendix, or any one of the 11 chapters on topics like torsion and deflection of beams.

McGraw-Hill is also willing to incorporate a professor's own materials into an electronic textbook. First, the company negotiates a royalty rate with the teacher for use of the material, which is ultimately reflected in the price of the book. According to the National Association of College Stores, royalties average about 11 percent of a textbook's purchase price. The idea is to not only provide professors with income for their intellectual property, it is also to free the publisher of responsibility for any copyright violations that might occur in a professor's materials.

Some professors, though, don't even bother to use publisher-owned resources, particularly for specialized subjects. When Eugene Rutz, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, created an environmental engineering course, he already had materials about such subjects as plutonium contamination in soil from lecture notes and PowerPoint presentations, which he transferred online. He also looked at publicly available documents already on the Internet, finding relevant sites developed by the University of Tennessee and even a school in Australia. Such sharing of educational materials is likely to grow in coming years. MIT, for instance, has already announced plans to put its entire curriculum online in the next decade—featuring such materials as lecture notes, course outlines, reading lists, and assignments.

Government documents offer another valuable trove of material. Federal agencies are putting more and more reports and data on the Web. Rutz was able to use information about the risk of radioactive material from the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Using these sites as course material also provides students with a ready source of continuing education. “If students have questions after the class is over, they can use these sites as a resource,” says Rutz.

Unlike traditional textbooks, online versions can pop off the page with multimedia presentations and exercises. At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of the two schools in the country with a fire protection engineering program, Professor John Woycheese sought the aid of WPI's Instructional Media Center to help design specialized materials related to fire safety. Thanks to that help, his students can now view a virtual sprinkler system, rotating the picture 360 degrees and zooming in or out to see interior views and make alterations in the design. “This helps students understand situations that don't lend themselves to a classroom environment, such as large fire tests,” says Woycheese.

Media centers similar to the one at WPI are spreading throughout higher education. Their mission is to help professors translate their teaching visions into usable demonstration projects. Four people helped Woycheese animate the virtual reality sprinklers, and the group is available to do more. He meets with them every other week to brainstorm over new additions to the course. “We develop a correct protocol by me feeding them the information and them figuring out a way to do it, “ he says.

Engineering profs say another valuable resource is private industry, which will often allow schools to adapt marketing materials and products for use in the classroom. Woycheese has received permission to use illustrations and videos from firms that make fire protection equipment like sprinklers and valves and insurers who underwrite safety tests. “These places are willing to allow us to use their information because they don't want [future engineers] to design facilities incorrectly,” he says.

Copyright Worries

Still, there are some dangers to creating online textbook materials, the key one being the potential to violate another author's copyright, which could result in a lawsuit. Some traditional publishers will try to help professors obtain materials they don't own, but others refuse to get involved. “We wouldn't want to commingle our content with other companies and become a clearinghouse for permissions,” says Patty Stark, vice president of sales for higher education for Wiley, claiming the process would be incredibly time consuming.

Those who have tried it say the rights clearance process is frustrating as well. To illustrate part of his text, Rutz wanted to use the cartoon figure Dilbert. He wrote the company asking permission but never got a response. Finding the correct company and individual to contact for rights, especially in the case of periodicals, can be a never-ending mission.

Some professors also point out that making your own textbook can subtract from activities like research. Chick Keller, a professor of engineering management at the University of Kansas, originally created his own custom textbook, but he's back to ordering off the shelf now. He says that publishers now include PowerPoint slides and other supplementary materials including dedicated Web pages with many textbooks. And to challenge the used book market, publishers are releasing new editions of textbooks every two years, which means that information is more up to date. “Textbooks have improved in the last 10 years,” he says. “Why make life hard for yourself if the centralized guys will do it for you?”

But for professors like Karweit who want information that can be constantly improved, it's worth the trouble. He estimates he's almost 90 percent finished gathering the material for his textbook. But only half of that is in a slick Web format; the other half is essentially a Microsoft Word document. With a recent grant from the GE Fund, Karweit hopes to have the product nearly complete by the end of June. “It's like a Christmas tree with ornaments,” he says. “Every ornament you add has additional value.”

Warren Cohen is a freelance writer based in New York City.
He can be reached via e-mail at



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