are scrapping conventional textbooks in favor of custom-designed digital
materials that are not only more relevant but also keep student budgets
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 decadefeaturing
such materials as lecture notes, course outlines, reading lists, and
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
Cohen is a freelance writer based in New York City.
He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
Teaching ToolBox articles: