New E-Textbooks Do More Than Inform: They'll Even Grade You

September 08, 2009

The earliest electronic textbooks simply offered the text of the printed book on a computer. Today's newest models, though, come with an array of features, including software tools that automatically grade homework for professors or let students share their margin notes with friends online.

A new line of e-textbooks scheduled to be unveiled on Tuesday by McGraw-Hill Higher Education, for instance, comes bundled with "lecture capture" software, so professors can use the built-in microphone and camera on a laptop computer to record their lectures for students, as well as with other features that are new for textbook publishers.

At the core of the new products are still the electronic versions of the traditional textbooks, but they are designed to let students quickly jump between specific chapters, say, and the portion of a professor's recorded lecture that covers that subject matter.

The company calls its new set of electronic textbooks "McGraw-Hill Connect," and the program includes about 100 titles in 18 disciplines, company officials said in interviews last week.

In some ways, the latest e-textbooks from McGraw-Hill and others compete with course-management software offered by Blackboard and other companies, though publishers say they are working in partnership with those companies rather than as rivals.

Adoption of electronic textbooks has been slow, and McGraw-Hill Connect is just the latest attempt by a major textbook publisher to nudge the format forward. Publishers could benefit if students take to electronic versions because most online books cannot be resold by students. The reuse of print textbooks cuts into sales of new titles, and brings no revenue to publishers.

Edward H. Stanford, president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, said in an interview that the new e-textbooks were developed based on an ethnographic investigation of student study habits done by the company. He said the company learned that students often do not study in a linear fashion, but instead jump around in the text, whether in print or electronic textbooks. "One kid in a biology class said, 'I don't read the chapter. I just look at the art. If I understand the art, I go on to the next art. If I don't understand the art, I read,'" said Mr. Stanford. "When he said that, it made perfect sense to me, but until he said it, I had never thought about it that way."

Instant-Grading Feature

In response, the company added more ways for students to jump around in their e-textbooks. From any homework problem, for instance, students can click to the relevant part of the text, or can jump to a part of their professor's recorded lecture that touched on that concept (if the professor makes use of that feature).

But the selling point to professors will most likely be the software's ability to grade student homework automatically. At a professor's request, the new e-textbooks can present a student with homework problems online, which are graded, with the scored work sent to both the student and the professor.

Jay Chakrapani, vice president for product development for McGraw-Hill Higher Education's digital group, said the system is designed to adapt to each student's progress, skipping to harder questions if the student aces the easy ones. "It's almost like a personal trainer or personal coach, constantly steering you to assessment items that probe you on the areas you're weak."

The company is urging professors to require the electronic textbooks for their courses, rather than leave it up to students whether they buy a printed book or an e-textbook. The company also sells a bundle that includes both the printed book and the e-book, because the company's research found that some students prefer print books to do their initial reading but electronic versions to review later. Of course, if students buy both, that also means even more revenue for the publishers. (For a Principals of Management textbook, the e-book and online tools cost $80, while a bundle that also includes the printed book costs $178.)

McGraw-Hill did not design its own lecture-capture software but instead has incorporated existing software made by Tegrity.

Other textbook publishers are offering new features in their digital products as well. E-textbooks sold through CourseSmart, a company started in 2007 by a group of textbook publishers, allow students to e-mail parts of the book to their friends (with their notes attached), or to read the complete text on their iPhone. E-textbooks published by Flat World Knowledge, meanwhile, let professors customize the textbook by adding their own chapters or making changes to the text for the edition offered to their students.

Is it possible that publishers could start selling textbooks that replace the need for going to class altogether? Mr. Stanford said no, that a professor will always be a core part of the learning process. But as textbook companies continue to add multimedia and assessment tools, such a scenario does not seem as far-fetched.