Developing a mobile textbook: A case study in collaborative authoring
For the past two years, I have been exploring ways to make educational materials accessible to students on mobile phones. In my online courses, for example, I have moved away from Blackboard, which is not well designed for mobile users. Much of my course content now lives instead on websites I have built with Weebly or Google Sites. These platforms provide responsive templates that work well for students on any size screen. While grades, administrative announcements, and discussions still take place on Blackboard (which is institutionally mandated and required for FERPA compliance), the majority of the text, audio, and video content for the courses is now housed on fully responsive sites outside of the LMS. Students can access the course materials from their phones at any time, without needing to log in to the cumbersome LMS system. More than half of my students now report that they do most of their course reading on their phones.
But what about textbooks? Most major textbook publishers now offer mobile apps with some degree of functionality. For the most part, however, this is content that was not originally designed for mobile users. The mobile ebook experience for most textbooks is not good, and many students do not purchase required course texts as a result. Faced with this dilemma, I wrote a TAA blog post in May 2016 about the challenge of making learning mobile (“How educators and authors can make learning mobile”). Through a wonderful chain of events, that blog post led to meeting a team of people at a new company called Gadget Software, who have developed a publishing platform called vPub™ (virtual publication) specifically for students on mobile devices.
Since the fall of 2016, I have been working with the folks at Gadget Software to develop a new product designed from the start for mobile users. We are working together to take all of the materials for a course called “The Technology of the Book” and re-imagine them specifically to take advantage of the vPub™ platform. I can summarize that experience so far by saying that it has prompted me to re-think just about everything I know about composing and designing educational texts. Authoring for mobile is not simply a matter of breaking content into smaller units, or using reflowable text to make long passages readable on a phone. Instead, the process requires a deeper exploration of the reader experience, a new approach to content development, and a more deeply collaborative process.
Reading on mobile devices
Readers on mobile devices generally want to direct their own reading experience. Following along a linear pathway through long passages of text (as with traditional textbook chapters) is not effective. Students increasingly want some control in defining their own learning path, building their own process for reading text and engaging media. So how do you compose and design educational texts when you do not have control over the order in which readers may approach specific sections?
That question presented the first major design challenge for my work with Gadget Software. Our approach has been to give students several options in choosing how they want to work through the content. Students can choose to work through a traditional chapter menu, or they can start with specific types of media (listening to audio, viewing videos) based on their own situation and learning preferences, or they can use an alternative contents to focus on technologies, or case studies, or key figures. In fact, we have begun to think in terms of a game-like metaphor: Instead of chapters or units, students embark on learning quests. The outcome or goal is defined (“explain the significance of the development of steam-powered printing presses in the nineteenth century,” for example), but students have the option to choose how they want to work through the material toward that goal.
A new approach to content development
Traditionally, textbooks are developed through a long process in which writing, development, revising, and design are separate steps—often separated by months of time. Working on the Technology of the Book project with Gadget Software has been completely different. In most cases, as the author, I am writing short units or sections of text at a time. Everything I write is also recorded (by me) as an audio podcast, and in many cases the text is in turn converted into an animated video segment as well. I post files in a shared folder that can also be accessed by my partners at Gadget Software—Max Riggsbee, chief product officer, and Patricia Alvarez, product manager. Max and Patricia take my raw files and import them into their authoring platform, so we can see a live preview of how the content looks and behaves on a mobile phone. This kind of rapid iteration and revision cycle has allowed us to re-think and re-define our approach as we go along.
We meet weekly to review new material and reflect on what we are seeing and learning as we build. This rapid revision cycle is similar to the approach used by many software developers, but it is a radically new process for textbook authors. The advantage of this process is that it allows us to design and build as we go along, rather than waiting nine months (or more) to write all the content first.
In some ways, Max and Patricia play the role that a development editor would play in a traditional publishing scenario. They provide feedback on the writing, help to conceptualize the architecture of the product as a whole, and so forth. But it goes far deeper than that. Because they are actively building and designing in real time, they are in effect co-creators. Design in textbooks has always been important, but in a mobile process it is even more integral to the process of content development. For them, I am one of the first authors to work in this process to develop content specifically for their platform. We have merged writing, design, and software engineering into a single workflow.
The motivation for learning an entirely new process on a new platform is simple: to provide students with learning materials and experiences that work for them. It has become clear that retrofitting long-form textbooks into mobile apps is only a short-term solution. Working with my creative partners at Gadget Software, we are forging a path toward what we hope will become the textbook of the future.
Michael will be co-presenting a session at the 2017 TAA Conference on Textbook & Academic Authoring in June, entitled, “Bringing Textbooks to Life: Strategies for Developing and Designing Content for a Mobile Generation”.
Michael Greer is an educator and editor who has been working in higher education for over 20 years. He has conducted a number of usability studies on college textbooks, published on textbook design and usability, and studied the ways in which students read and use textbooks. He worked as a development editor at Pearson for 15 years before starting his own company, Development by Design. Michael teaches online courses in editing and publishing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is editor for the journal Research in Online Literacy Education. Michael is a frequent contributor to the Beyond the Book podcast series, where you can hear more of his thoughts on students, learning, and the design of educational materials.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.