Book Apps: Why are we still calling them books?

I don’t know about you, but when I hear “e-book” I automatically think of something that can be read on a Kindle or Nook (or on one of their associated iPad apps). Basically, text that was written for a print medium and slapped into a digital format. Yeh, they’re convenient (I can download one in minutes), they’re cheaper (though only marginally), and they’re more easily accessible (who wants to carry around 50 lbs of books?)… but they aren’t exactly innovative.

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Publishers Trying to Close Open-Education Textbooks?

I pulled up my feed-reader for the first time in weeks, and this gem from The Chronicle waiting for me a few days ago: 3 Major Publishers Sue Open-Education Textbook Start-Up.  I knew it was coming… and I’m sure many, many more will follow.

A lot of professors have been pulling together their own materials to teach their classes, rather than requiring students to buy expensive texts.  There’s a growing niche market for small start up companies who make it simple for professors (or students) to create their own texts by using open-source content found online. Boundless Learning is one such start up company.  Their About Me page explains that they are “. . .making the world’s open educational content more useful for students by connecting them with the wealth of high quality, openly licensed, and free educational content that has been created by leading educators and institutions over the last 20 years.”

Boundless is being sued by 3 major textbook companies for “stealing” their author’s ideas. Mind you, Boundless isn’t actually taking content from these textbooks. They are pulling the same concepts that are used in the textbooks from other sources. But I found this little quote somewhere buried in the middle of the Chronicle article:

To illustrate this claim of intellectual theft, the publishers’ complaint points to the Boundless versions of several textbooks, including Biology, a textbook authored by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece. The Boundless alternative, the complaint alleges, is guilty of copying the printed material’s layout and engaging in what the complaint calls “photographic paraphrasing.” In one chapter of the printed book, for instance, the editors chose to illustrate the first and second laws of thermodynamics using pictures of a bear running and a bear catching a fish in its mouth. Boundless’s substitute text uses similar pictures to illustrate the same concepts—albeit Creative Commons-licensed images hosted on Wikipedia that include links to the source material, in accordance with the terms of the open license. (My emphasis)

I have never in my life heard of “photographic paraphrasing.” But I have a feeling that with Apple’s release of iAuthor and several other developments that make course packages much easier to create and maintain, we’ll be hearing that term a lot more over the next couple of years.

eBook Design: Designing for the Media v. Designing for the Medium

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how eBooks can be disorienting for the reader (and by “reader” I meant me.)

I have a difficult time “finding” my place when I’m reading an eBook. This isn’t really a problem when I’m reading a novel, but it becomes very frustrating when I’m reading a textbook or doing research. When I read a novel, I usually read from the beginning of the book to the end. I don’t flip back and forth. I don’t refer back to an earlier section. It’s a very linear expereince.

When I’m researching or studying, however, my reading practices are very different. I read a section, make highlights and notes, put the book aside. Pick up another text. Highlight. Take notes. Put my reading materials away and try to write for a while. If I get stuck while I’m writing, I pick my reading materials up again. I’ll flip through the text, looking for a quote that seemed important.

None of these “reading” (I use scare quotes because I’m clearly doing more than just reading) practices translate very well to an eBook.  The navigation on an eBook is clunky. It doesn’t really use the affordances of the technology. As the reader, I can progress forward one page at a time, as fast as my finger can swipe across the screen (which isn’t all that fast). Or, I can click on chapter or section links from the Table of Contents, which is really only useful if I know the exact chapter or section I’m looking for. And even then, this only takes me to the first page of the chapter. From there, I’ll have to start flipping pages again…

Annoying, to say the least.

Well, the folks over at KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence are prototyping an eBook design right now that certainly expands the navigation experience of the eBook. (Thanks, John, for sending me this video.)

While I am over-joyed that someone is working on improving eBook design, I’m also a little discouraged. I can appreciate that this design solves the page-flipping problem. But it feels like a band-aid solution to a gaping wound. And I have to question whether we are wrong in trying to fit an old technology form into a new medium.

It’s like the Romans saying, “We don’t like the codex book because we can’t roll its pages up like a scroll.”

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eTexts and Spatial Disorientation

You Are Here Comic
(Image Source: UX Magazine)

This seems to be one of my soap boxes lately. Here I am, again… climbing back up to talk about my observations about (and frustrations with) eBooks.

The text I’ve been most focused this past week,  Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice, by Janet Murray is rather expensive, so I decided to check it out from the library. A few chapters in, I realized it was probably something I’d want to refer back to over the next couple of years. So I downloaded the Kindle version.

And then a funny thing happened.  I’ve found myself using both copies. I’ll read from the hard-copy book, then highlight quotes on the Kindle version. Or I’ll skim through the Kindle version and annotate some of my highlights, then pull the book out to look at the pictures and read the captions.

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Steps Toward “Legitimizing” Digital Publications?

This morning, inside Higher Ed posted an article titled “New Seal of Approval,” which announces new possibilities for digital humanities scholars: Anvil Academic. The platform is a team effort from the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) and the Council for Library and Information Resources (CLIR), who hope Anvil Academic will give scholars researching about and with technology an outlet to publish their scholarship in away that is as acknowledged and legitimized.
Despite all of its affordances for creating texts that present information more dynamically and in greater detail or depth that more traditional publications, digital publishing still seems to struggle with gaining widespread disciplinary recognition.  One of the problems is that, as of yet, there isn’t a peer review process that can vet digital works in the same ways as traditionally published texts. Anvil Academic seeks to remedy that:

“One of Anvil’s goals is to build a peer-review infrastructure for research that cannot be easily represented in text. While the digital humanities are widely considered an important frontier, tenure and promotion committees still have trouble evaluating the work of digital humanists because the format is often so unfamiliar.”

I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Alternative Textbooks

I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz lately about universities

Temple University recently piloted an alternative textbook project, where faculty abandoned the traditional text books in favor of building their own. The experiment provided 11 faculty each with $1000 to create course texts using their own materials, primary archival sources, and free online sources. From reading the article, it seems like the project was considered a success by both the faculty involved and the students.

I thought one of the comments made in the article by a first year writing professor was particularly intriguing:

Last semester, the majority of students needed a lot of assistance with their first paper. . . This fall was exactly the opposite. They still did a lot of reading and researching but (the alternative textbook) created a facility with language and research that they didn’t have with the regular text. It’s added a dimension as well as being a substitute.

I hear the common complaint that students don’t know how to work with various texts. They don’t know how to approach them, read them, analyze them, interact with them, or evaluate them. Well, how will they if the are only exposed to the standard course text and anthology that’s become to traditional “textbook?” If we take our reading day after day after day from a textbook, we shouldn’t be too surprised when first year composition students freak at the end of the semester when they have to write a final paper.

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Anthologize: Turn Blogs into eBooks

Screen Capture of Anthologize home page

Anthologize – Interesting app developed at George Mason University that lets users grab content from WordPress 3.0 blogs and compile them into an book.

Content can be saved and published digitally in PDF, ePub, or TEI formats.

I read about it in an article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed on the Challenges of the Digital Humanities. The article was a response to some of themes being discussed at the recent 2012 MLA conference.

About Face (Part 5): Using Idioms to Re-envision How We Understand and Interact with Texts

This is part four of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin. This is certainly the logest of the five-post series. Apparently I felt strongly about the topic!

What is the balance between meeting user’s mental models and creating new idioms?

There seems to be a slight (but necessary) conflict between two key principles mentioned throughout About Face.  The first half of the text strongly reinforces the idea that programmers and designers must work together with users to understand users’ mental models.  Software should match how users think—even if this contradicts the “logic” within the code.

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About Face (Part 2): Applying About Face to E-Texts

This is part four of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin.

How might all these principles apply to e-texts?  

Although About Face focuses almost exclusively on desktop or laptop computers and the applications and software designed for these technologies, I kept trying to relate their concepts back to textbooks. At first I found this annoying and a bit frustrating. Finally I just decided to give in and run with it.  Most, if not all, of the principles in About Face can be easily applied to iPad app design—more specifically, texts that can be read on an iPad.  For this reason, many of my observations about and responses to About Face deal with e-texts and come from the perspective of a Digital Rhetoric scholar and English composition instructor.

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