In recent years, an increasing number of universities have been making electronic textbooks available as an alternative to traditional print books. The Herald reported last year that universities across the country, including the University System of Ohio, have begun to offer students the option to switch from paper textbooks to electronic versions.
In addition to the obvious cost savings and environmental benefits, electronic textbooks make it possible to incorporate extra media content into existing books. Macmillan Publishers is taking advantage of this potential by launching a system in August that will allow professors to personalize electronic versions of existing textbooks.
The system, called DynamicBooks, allows professors to rewrite portions of the text, add or delete chapters and incorporate videos and problem sets directly into the book. Macmillan joins the ranks of several other publishing companies that have launched electronic textbook platforms with interactive features.
To attract new users, Macmillan will offer professors a $1 per e-book royalty from sales of books that include their customizations. In addition, editors will review online texts every six months and integrate what they consider to be the best revisions into the official version of the textbook.
"Dynamic" textbooks are a novel solution to a familiar problem — the difficulty of selecting books that effectively fit a course. Students frequently pay hundreds of dollars for a textbook only to find that it is underutilized in class. Giving professors the power to edit textbooks to suit their needs will allow them to create editions that are more relevant and useful for students. It will also help students bypass the usual uncertainty about which edition of the text to buy.
Although DynamicBooks would seem to be an overwhelmingly positive development, it is not entirely free from controversy. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education cited worries that paying professors for their updates amounts to a kind of "kickback" to lure professors into using the system.
These worries strike us as completely unfounded. Professors deserve to be compensated if they put in the effort to update the book, and one dollar per book is unlikely to be an overwhelming incentive for professors to embrace the system. Even in the largest lecture classes, a professor would make no more than a few hundred dollars. Professors already stand to gain even more in royalties by assigning the print editions of their own books to large classes.
Additionally, to qualify for the payment, revisions must meet a set of criteria established by the publishers, so only professors that make significant contributions to the textbook would receive money. If DynamicBooks develops into a reliable, easy-to-use system, we wouldn't have any problem with professors being given even more of an incentive to use it.
Professors at Brown should start exploring these innovative new options. A recent Herald story pointed out that electronic books have been slow to catch on at the University.
Nevertheless, we still believe that electronic books have the potential to make texts more useful and accessible, especially now that professors can edit the books themselves. In the coming years, we hope to see professors use this new system and others like it to make the books they assign more relevant to the courses they teach.