Champaign, Ill. — There is a revolution brewing in the textbook creation world and, of course, the University of Illinois is leading it.
Developed by employees of the U. of I's Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning to increase textbook accessibility and reduce student costs, eText already has expanded to 36 titles and has been used by more than 18,000 students.
And the number is growing.
"The eText program represents an effective way to substantially reduce the cost associated with college textbooks for students while offering the possibility of new revenues for instructors," said Michel Bellini, CITL director. "I foresee the potential for eText@Illinois to become the precursor of the next generation of digital learning environments.”
CITL is raising awareness about the new tool, which creates full interactive computer "books" from campus-centric content, and can be accessed through any Internet-enabled device.
With it, students can even insert their own notes by just clicking the block of copy they'd like to comment on, and the note is flagged for future reference.
It also is far less expensive than traditional textbooks or other conversion tools, with eText versions offered either free or at a nominal cost (most less than $20), as opposed to hundreds of dollars for a traditional textbook.
"The cost for students obviously is a big issue," said Karen Bollinger, CITL associate director for marketing and strategic communication, "but the biggest advantage is the equality and access this gives our students. It makes course content available to everyone, regardless of the need of accommodation, from the first day of class. It's going to turn things upside down."
The unit's eText team works with professors to adapt their classroom content to the eText format. Once converted, the text's format is infinitely and easily revisable.
Milind Basole, a principal learning professional for CITL and one of eText's developers, said the eText offerings give students, especially those with disabilities, more options.
"We're very excited about this because we've gone way beyond what is required and we keep going further and further every semester," he said. "It also gives the faculty much more control over their content."
With eText, even complicated formulas can be viewed in the various formats, and confusion over instructional problems can be addressed almost immediately.
"A student using an eText book can say, 'I don't get this,' and the instructor will know exactly what 'this' means," said Yury Borukhovich, the lead developer for eText. "The instructor can even update the information immediately, so it becomes this living entity."
Basole said instructors can embed practice problems into eText, and that he and Borukhovich are working on a feature to allow homework problems to be automatically evaluated and entered into an online grade book.
"The idea is to bring everything together and make it all more engaging," he said.
In addition, original content doesn't require copyright notification, and authors can receive a larger cut of the book's revenue than through the traditional bound-book process. Copyright issues only arise when material other than originally created content is used in the classroom.
Bollinger said eText conversions to this point have been used for large general education classes, but the service is offered on a first-come, first-served basis to any instructor wishing to convert to an interactive electronic format. Some instructors also have used content from Openstax College, an online provider of open-access college textbooks that is affiliated with Rice University.
Pat Malik, the interim director of the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services, said her staff members also are excitedly touting the merits of eText.
While cost and accessibility are two important DRES priorities, Malik said eText also could be a godsend in reducing the department's heavy textbook conversion workload.
She said about 20 percent of the department's budget is devoted to time-consuming conversion work, which is usually done for individual students after the course already has started. It can take upward of 100 hours to convert a textbook.
"There's usually a lot of cleaning up to do and it takes some time," she said. "If it's not done before classes start, there can be a little lag time."
The advantage to eText, she said, is that it is simple and less costly than other methods, but still makes educational material available to anyone seeking it.
"People don't understand that electronic does not necessarily mean accessible," she said. "That's not a concern for eText – we endorse this as a big step forward. I don't think anybody else is doing this."
Beyond the advantage for disabled students, Malik said the conversion to an electronic format is good for all students because they can access materials from anywhere.
She used the practice of adding curb cuts as an example of an action designed to help those in wheelchairs, but one that ultimately improved street access for everyone.
"Accessibility has benefits for everybody," she said.