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The Next Wave of Digital Textbooks – DynamicBooks from Macmillan

One of the most firmly entrenched academic practices centers upon the use of textbooks as the fundamental drivers of curricula. Ultra-expensive, these items represent one of the largest costs for public school systems as well as those attending college.

As the digital age continues to work its way into the stuffy world of academics, there are clear indications that textbooks are gradually being phased out in many areas of the country. The sheer volume of resources available on the net is leading many school districts to create and share their own materials.

homepic3_whats_nextMacmillan, considered one of the largest players in that old, conservative world, apparently has now also seen the “handwriting on the wall.” The company recently announced it will offer academics an entirely new format: DynamicBooks.

The Wikipedia of Textbooks

The new, digital textbook format introduced by Macmillan has been dubbed by the New York Times as a kind of “Wikipedia of textbooks.” New software will allow college-level instructors to edit digital versions of e-textbooks, enabling these professors to customize the texts for their individual courses.

In addition to having the ability to reorganize and/or delete entire chapters or sections of the text, professors will be able to upload their course syllabus as well as any other supporting materials that have been created for the class: notes, videos, pictures and graphs. Offering significant potential cost savings (half the price of physical textbooks according to the Times), this format will allow all course materials be placed in a single digital location, a feature that should prove to be a godsend for students.

But it is yet another step that Macmillan is taking that is drawing the greatest attention. The phrase “Wikipedia of textbooks” speaks directly to that concept, the ability of professors to rewrite paragraphs and add their own equations, drawings, and illustrations.

While this step will allow most professors to do what they already do in a more efficient manner, the idea is not sitting well with the traditionalists who see the intellectual property within such books as proprietary. The further blurring of copyright laws as professors create their own content and intermingle that work with the published textbook authors is an enormous issue for those who have made a living in the textbook field.

The Opposition

Most of the concerns center on a format that is ripe for plagiarism. But the editorial staff at Tufts Daily is calling the concept risky for other reasons.

TD expressed extreme concern that professors would have direct editorial control over the content of the textbook yet would not be required to cite sources for the changes made nor need approval from either the publisher or the authors of the textbook. In addition, TD is concerned with another of the focal points of textbook traditionalists.

Online library conceptApparently a significant number of the textbooks that will be available are those currently utilized in “large survey courses in the sciences.” While all professors no doubt altered the material to some extent in their individual courses, the traditional textbook had served as a standard reference for students.

According to TD, not only were students able to reference the textbook to discern greater clarity of the specific material that has been presented, the books provided students the essential content deemed relevant to the topic. But now, TD fears those books could well be devoid of relevant topics or critical background material.

In addition, TD notes “that professors may change the text with biased or even false information,” could “accidentally miswrite a definition or make an error in a formula or equation.” Any such errors would no doubt be detrimental to the students taking the course.

TD further insists students should not be the ones to face consequences for these errors or biases, that professors “should not be allowed to edit textbook content without review by the publisher or the textbook author.” And while TD offers support for the field of digital textbooks due to their ease of use and accessibility even as they reduce textbook costs, the editors insisted that allowing such edits did “not outweigh the potential problems that it could cause.”

Instead, professors should not be provided unchecked editorial control over the textbook as it ultimately “jeopardizes the reliability of course material for students.”

Macmillan Moving Forward

Despite these concerns, Macmillan plans to start selling about 100 titles through DynamicBooks. Some of the reported texts that will be available come August include: Chemical Principles: The Quest for Insight, by Peter Atkins and Loretta Jones; Discovering the Universe, by Neil F. Comins and William J. Kaufmann; and Psychology, by Daniel L. Schacter, Daniel T. Gilbert and Daniel M. Wegner.

The books will be available at college bookstores, the DynamicBooks web site and through CourseSmart. Accessing the DynamicBooks editions will be possible either directly online or by downloading the text to a laptop or iPhone.

Dollars in the books, isolated on white background, business traAnd of the cost savings, the Times noted one concrete example. The aforementioned Psychology has a list price of $134.29 when sold in its traditional format. The version that may be altered by a professor will sell for $48.76 when accessed through the DynamicBooks concept.

The altered versions will also be available in print on-demand version from Macmillan. However, when students opt for that format, the cost will revert nearly to the original list price.

100% Support for New Concept

Given the costs associated with textbooks, any step taken to reduce the outlay by students or schools is a welcome one in this corner. The fact of the matter is the current knowledge explosion renders most books out-of-date within a matter of months after publication.

In addition, no text is ever a perfect match for a course and the students taking that course. Every teacher makes modifications on at least a weekly or monthly basis, supplementing and deleting whenever such a step makes sense for the students they are entrusted with.

Kudos go out to Macmillan for taking a step other publishers have held back on: the level of customization that comes with being able to edit and supplement at the sentence and paragraph level. The option also allows for those delivering course content to collaborate and share material that is known to work best with students and include that in the basic course materials.

That inherent question, should professors have the right to edit and alter materials, is essentially a non-starter anyway. The bottom line is every good instructor does just that, altering and supplementing as he or she deems appropriate.

But now colleges, and hopefully one day K-12 school districts will be able to save hundreds of dollars even as they continue that long-standing practice of offering students an anchor text.


1 Mark Gagnon { 02.26.10 at 5:27 pm }

I completely disagree with giving kudos to Macmillan, and the assertion that professors should have the right to edit and alter material is a non-starter as a discussion point.

There is one important reason that these “textbooks” are not wikipedia texts. For starters textbooks are essentially peer reviewed materials. The same can be said of Wikipedia. The purpose of peer review is to make certain that the contents is correct and/or accepted by the “experts” in the field. When you give the right to alter and edit textbooks at the sentence and paragraph level, you subvert the peer review process. How would a student know what text material was altered? Professors do have the right to choose and emphasize certain parts of a text. they certainly have the right to write their own materials for students to read. But they do not have the right to edit and alter peer reviewed material.

2 Bobby { 03.01.10 at 5:55 pm }

Thanks for your information on the digital textbook format. There are good arguments for both sides. The reduced cost and convenience of digital textbooks make them the next logical step. However, they do allow for possibility of subversion of content material. Many authors may not be happy that there work is revisable. Faith in the professor teaching the course means all that much more now that the future of textbooks has arrived. For better or worse, digital books are here to stay.

3 Marta { 03.03.10 at 4:38 am }

I wonder if teachers that now preach creationism will start writing it down in textbooks. I mean, now, at least, they cannot adopt the Bible as a reference… I really want textbooks to be free, but this does not seem a good way to me.

4 Lara Jane | Ultimate Lifestyle Project { 03.04.10 at 9:00 pm }

I agree with the comments Mark made. Who has the right via credibility and authority to edit the work of other scholars? If they feel that the textbooks need altering, perhaps it would be prudent to formulate their own curriculum on such an occasion?

5 Anthony Borrow { 03.27.10 at 10:42 am }

The idea of digital textbooks in which teachers can edit the text, add examples, etc. is not new. is an example of one organization that has been doing this for a while. Macmillan is simply smart enough to recognize that they need to be offer such flexibility if they are going to compete with Creative Commons licensed textbooks. Students, especially those who become passionate about learning, will have access to the original work of the author and be able to compare their version of a text with the original. There is no loss in allowing anyone to be able to contribute to a work, to make suggestions for improvement, etc. Ultimately, the initial author can determine whether the suggested changes have merit. Hopefully we will begin to see more open content developed by educators truly committed to sharing their knowledge. Peace – Anthony

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