The big news today in e-textbooks was a major publisher announcing a new digital textbook product. They include the usual suspects for features such as a cheaper price (though the student is only allowed access for one term), the potential for embedded videos and questions, and note taking tools. Next year they claim they will even link with twitter and facebook—I’m not sure how many students are so excited by a textbook they want to twitter about it, but more power to them if they do. The new feature that this etext solution is pushing, though, is the ability for a teacher to edit the textbook themselves.
Other e-text solutions allow teachers to choose chapters to include or exclude, and some allow adding questions and links as auxiliary materials, but this new DynamicBooks eText claims that you will be able to edit anything within the text— inserting your own videos, changing paragraphs you don’t like, adding annotations. This is an interesting idea that we’ve thought about as well. In fact, with our virtual labs in ecology and evolution, we give instructors the accompanying workbooks to change as they wish so they can modify the sequence of virtual biology experiments the students do. Some instructors take advantage of this, especially to remove pieces of one of our labs that don’t fit their curriculum, or to add their own questions. So with labs, we know that some fraction of instructors (perhaps 10%?) like the ability to make changes.
With textbooks it’s a little less clear to me what the cost/benefit is for a teacher to make personal edits. Lots of people are unhappy with the textbook they use for their class, and often there are sections of the textbook that a teacher likes better than others. So in principal, a teacher could improve a text for their class if allowed to edit. In practice, though, writing a chapter in a textbook is a lot of work, much more so than modifying a laboratory, and also takes a good deal of writing skill. How many teachers are really going to want to take the time to write pieces of their own textbook? Will it be 10% like with our labs, or less? And will their students see the teachers contributions as improvements, or as breaking the flow of the original authors? I don’t know the answers, but its an interesting idea and I look forward to hearing whether that feature of the DynamicBooks program ends up being popular.