A Retrofitted E-Book

How not to ditch your textbook for the sake of technology

ALA e-book logo of person with ebookIn 2008 the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) published an article that asked, “E-Books in Higher Education: Nearing the End of the Era of Hype?” (boldly taking on Betteridge’s Law of Headlines).  Several years later, we are still just dipping our toes into the e-book waters.  A 2013 report by Hanover Research entitled, “Usage of E-Books in Higher Education,” cited various studies that found that roughly 20% of college students have purchased e-textbooks, which account for 9% of the global textbook market.  Several conflicting viewpoints are analyzed in this report, citing research both in favor of e-books and against them.

The bottom line is that there still seems to be a preference for print books, but the strength of this preference is a bit unclear.  One study reported a 75% preference for printed texts to e-books, yet another study reported a 40% print preference, a 25% e-book preference, and the typical 35% of college students not really caring either way.

Required textbooks...  That's adorable

In either case, not surprising to anyone who is familiar with instructional technology research, the preference depends more on the instructor’s methods than on the technology (a phenomenon somewhat addressed in this previous post).  Students who use e-books simply as a shinier substitute for print tend to prefer print.  Students who use their full capabilities as a media, communication, and collaboration portal are less likely to prefer print, and they report that e-books have a positive impact on their learning experiences.  If you have a Swiss Army Knife but only use it for the scissors, it will never be as good as a “real” pair of scissors.

swiss army knife

From the faculty perspective, there is sometimes legitimate concern that content quality is sacrificed in favor of flash when new technology takes the place of older methods.  Some textbooks are really good and should still be used.  But at the same time, their lack of interaction and static nature limits their impact on students.  The big benefit of e-books is that they bundle advanced capabilities along with the content, allowing students to view media, manipulate objects, and interact with each other, all within their “reading” experience.  But like most transitions in education, the best approach might be to bridge the gap with the right balance between the established practices and the next level of engagement.  There needs to be a way to keep the high-quality print textbooks but give them the interaction that is possible in our connected age.

Good news.  This is possible through a really cool *and free* Augmented Reality program and app called Aurasma.  With Aurasma and a mobile device, students are able to overlay digital media on real-life objects.  Essentially, you get much of the interactivity of an e-book while still having the content and familiarity of a textbook.  To test it out I worked with a textbook that I just had lying around:  Agriculture for the Kansas Common Schools (1945, first printing in 1914).  They just don’t make ’em like this anymore.

agriculture textbook cover

Click the cover to peruse the digitized 1914 edition in Google Books.

By setting up a “channel” through the Aurasma Studio and adding “auras” to some of the images in a chapter, I can now instantly view demonstration videos where before sat less effective, static images, as shown below.

open textbook and open textbook with video popping up out of it
I could set up auras that direct students to webpages where they can get additional information from trusted resources, where they can share their thoughts on a passage, or where they can take a quiz in Canvas.  If you have a computer screen and a mobile device right now, you can test it out:

  • Click on the digital Agriculture book above and skip to pg 382 (and 383, 390, & 392)
  • Download the Aurasma app on your iOS or Android mobile device (I’ve had more success with iOS)
  • Visit http://auras.ma/s/PrVBM on your mobile device to get access to my “Agriculture- 1945” channel
  • Use the app to scan the images
  • (If this is going too fast for you, feel free to skip down to the tutorial video at the bottom of the post before you try it out for yourself.)

Aurasma isn’t limited to textbooks though.  Virtually anything that you could take an uncluttered picture of could be the site of some pop-up interactivity:  signs, buildings, art, a picture of you…  It is well worth some exploration.  I played around with the location-enabled auras (perfect for a self-guided tour of campus) and got this to happen on the front of Plumb Hall:

Plumb Hall with video playing on it


This video is set to play automatically, and tapping on the buttons below it will take viewers here or here.  It look longer to walk down the 3 flights of Plumb Hall stairs and test this than it did to set it up in the Aurasma Studio.

And here is an excellent example of the potential of augmented reality in an art exhibit (although not done with Aurasma):

I could probably go on for awhile with more examples (and I probably should sometime in another post), but why not get get started making your own?  The video below introduces Aurasma Studio and shows the results of my textbook coversion to an e-book.  It is followed by a complete playlist that will walk you through the steps of creating your own auras to start bringing some of the modern capabilities of mobile devices to the existing resources on which you already rely.


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