eBook Review: Xplana

Fresh on the heels of our Flatworld Knowledge review, we are taking a look at another innovative textbook platform that is about more than just textbooks. Xplana is a platform launched two years ago by MBS Service Company Inc (a former employer of mine). intended to bridge ‘social networking and traditional elements of student learning to transform the way students manage their academic lives.”

So what does that mean? Lets turn to Xplana Chief Executive Officer Dennis Flanagan who said ” Xplana is best described as the social network for learning. It’s the first ever ‘social learning’ platform designed to bring the entire student learning life into a single location.”

So how does Xplana accomplish this rather daunting goal? Providing an eReader and a store through which to by eTextbooks is a natural place to start, but Xplana is much more, and purchasing eBooks is a small part of the big picture. Xplana allows you to collect learning materials on your profile the same way you collect records of your social life and interests on Facebook. Any media related to your academics can be uploaded and associated with your profile, be it a copy of a course sylibi, a website of supplemental material, class notes or even a video recording of a lecture.

In addition to uploading original materials you can search through hundreds of thousands of resources already available on Xplana. Many of these materials have been uploaded by students like you! So next time your cramming for an exam, you can skip the library stacks and pool resources from Xplana to supplement your course material.

However, Xplana can help you stay organized to ease the inevitable last minute cram. You can create your own study tools such as flashcards, notes and study guides as you go for easy reference later on dificult topics. Calendar and journal features let you schedule future study sessions and keep track of class projects, or keep a running record of your academic life.

Just like you might have a photo album on Facebook for that trip you took to Europe after high school, you can collect academic resources into albums within Xplana. This is a great way to keep everything from your actual eTextbook to your class notes to that one website your classmate recommended all in one place. With a little forethought, you can also add keyword tags to any item in your album to make them easily searchable later.

Now this is all great, but where is the social part of this ‘social learning platform?’ I’m glad you asked, because Xplana allows you to friend other users accounts, be it an assigned group project partner, a fellow classmate or simply another student somewhere in the world with similar academic needs. Got a mid-term coming up? You can invite your Xplana friends to an online study group or collaborate on a group project with the messaging system.

Want to show your study group a great resource you found on Xplana? Simple linking allows you to email them a link to any resource material on Xplana or you can share materials through Facebook and Twitter. Better yet, if you and your group all have the same eTextbook for your course, you can instantly share any notes or annotations you’ve made in your copy or see some made by other users.  Just want the best notes and annotations from other students? Then make a habit of rating and commenting on others annotations as you’re searching for the highest rated insight.

And this brings is back around full circle to the most fundamental but by no means simplest part of any digital learning platform, the eBook reader. Xplana’s proprietary reader boasts many progressive features that are quickly becoming industry standards. Search functionality, highlighting and the aforementioned notes and annotation functions are extremely helpful study tools. Checkpoint quizzes to test your comprehension are also invaluable in finding the holes in your understanding of a chapter.

However Xplana’s reader doesn’t stop there and features embedded rich media like animations, videos, audio clips and live links. As we’ve discussed before, these features are already a standard in eReaders when it comes to academic texts, but not all platforms fully support them as of yet. It just goes to show that Xplana isn’t resting on it’s social side by wrapping a second rate eReader into the platform and I look forward to seeing how their reader develops as new capabilities enter the market.

Do you have inconsistent internet access? No problem, you can easily download you eBook for viewing offline. All in reader features (notes/annotations/edits) still work offline and will automatically sync with your online profile the next time you log in.

If offline reading just won’t cut it, you can always take advantage of the Xplana mobile app. Available for iPhone and Android phones, the Xplana app gives you access to all your course materials and will auto sync to your account when you add new media on the desktop version. The app will also allow you to share materials with friends by email or on Twitter and Facebook. You can even take notes on mobile, or better yet, capture photos, audio or video of your lecture which can be uploaded to Xplana and added to your course materials. It’s hard to say exactly how useful this tool will be but it’s one I wish I’d had all those times I went to study and found doodles instead of notes in my notebook.

Xplana certainly didn’t invent the eReader, or social networking, or the idea of searchable, indexed user submitted content, but they are the first company to wrap up so many tools into one platform. Being able to share anything with anyone, and see anything any student has uploaded puts a wealth of information and connectivity at your fingertips. But with such an open and flexible platform, it falls to the student to fit the platform to their needs and make use of it.

If you’re that person who buys a planner at the beginning of each school year, only to fill in the first two weeks and never pick it up again, you probably won’t use Xplana to its full potential. However, if you work at it, you can not only make that cram session for the final exam easier, but be better prepared when you get there.

Who’s Screwing Whom? – The Great Textbook / Bookstore Debate

As we’re in the midst of back-to-school rush, I’m reading some interesting industry-related articles and posts. While many are the standard “how to save on college, dorm decor, food, textbooks, etc.,” types of writings, a few more-detailed (and more honest and daring) posts have caught my attention. I wanted to take a moment to share them with you.


The New Republic, “How College Bookstores Are Killing College Bookstores”
In this post, Mark Athitakis explores how the college bookstore has gone from being dependent on selling textbooks to a vendor of anything but — namely a services outpost selling everything but textbooks.


Luke Thomas, “The Textbook Industry & Greed: My Story”
This is a firsthand account of a student trying to purchase books and the hassles and hurdles and confrontations he and his wife faced trying to do so without breaking the bank. It’s a real-life account of the cruel world of academic book-buying, and it isn’t pretty.


And of course, something from the vault . . .
The Textbook Guru, “Why Can’t I Buy My Books Anywhere But The Bookstore?”
My take on the bookstore’s attempt to move to custom publications and the negative impact on students.
Part 1: http://thetextbookguru.com/2012/08/07/i-cant-find-my-textbook/
Part 2: http://thetextbookguru.com/2012/08/09/i-cant-find-my-textbookpart-2/
Reactions: http://thetextbookguru.com/2012/08/10/why-cant-i-buy-my-book-any-where-but-the-bookstore-reaction/

eBook Review – Chegg – The Update

The last time I checked in on the eTextbook platform at Chegg, it was February of this year; what a difference six months has made! While the original system was impressive, the changes are even more so and they are going to help set Chegg apart in the digital arena. Here’s what’s up:

iPhone Reader: Taking advantage of the retina display on iPhone, the new-and-improved Chegg app now has a direct tie to the eTextbook platform. This experience is fully optimized and provides a crisp-and-clean interface that is easy to navigate and easy on the eyes. Want to take it for a spin? The app has a sample eTextbook, so try it for yourself. Let me know what you think.

Notepad: In the first review, I mentioned the notes feature, but the new notepad is a totally revised experience. Clip a quote, grab a picture, or insert a Wikipedia definition into your note page and start a digital record of the notes and parts of the book you find most interesting. This is particularly helpful when going back to study for a test.

Homework Help: The old system had a Q&A component. The new system has deep integration with the Homework Help social interaction that Chegg is really promoting this fall.

Highlights: When I buy a used book, I typically look at the highlighting from the previous owner to see if s/he did a good job calling out useful content. The new highlight feature in Chegg tech allows you to see passages of the book that have been highlighted by other users. I thought this was a great use of digital content, kind of like getting the wisdom of all others who have used the same text.

While You Wait: While this isn’t a feature of the digital book itself, it is a nice feature of the larger process. Now when you order your textbook rental, if you are worried the book will not arrive by the first day of class, you can pay $0.99 to get a digital copy of the book for seven days while you wait for the print copy.

Chegg is setting the bar high for eTextbooks. As I have mentioned in past posts, Chegg needs a digital strategy to ensure its future now that it has serious competition from many rental companies trying to emulate what Chegg started a few years ago. You can tell by recent updates that the folks at Chegg get it, that they understand that they cannot rest upon their rental laurels and that they must continually innovate and that such innovation must come in the form of an interactive digital hub that is mobile friendly.

Chegg – Internet Study Hall – Banking on the Future

If you’ve been following Chegg as I have, you’ve seen a company grow and nimbly stretch in many different directions in attempts to innovate. Chegg has evolved from a classifieds website into a textbook-rentals giant. When Chegg entered the textbook rental market, well . . . there was no market and they shaped the game. Sure, it could be argued that Book Renter (Rafter) and Campus Book Rentals were on the scene and rentals were occurring on campus, but it was nothing like we see today and Chegg deserves a lot of the credit for the ubiquity of rentals now.

As the Chegg engine grew and more competitors entered the rentals marketplace, company decision-makers knew that they need to be something more than just a rentals company. The market was begging for a solution to eBooks. While I don’t think eBooks are necessary right now (they represent just 3-5% of textbooks sales in higher education), it is clear that a digital strategy (beyond eBooks) is necessary going forward. Chegg made some serious investments into digital, and as I have discussed in my earlier reviews, the results are pretty impressive.

What is just as impressive is how the company is starting to put together the “social graph” they have been discussing for over a year. This endeavor began as Chegg started making several acquisitions, including Cramster, Student of Fortune, NoteHall, and Zinch. It seemed they were buying ambitious one-offs focused on additional learning materials, and the overall picture of how they would integrate users into a single interface or provide a single product was a bit unclear.

Earlier this year Chegg showed the fruits of their acquisitive and integrative labor in the form of the new Chegg website that allows students to plan classes, get homework help, interact with classmates and peers using the same materials, and of course rent textbooks. So the question here was really one of “We built it, will they come? Is this a product that students desire or is it technology folly for marketing and programming departments?” It seems that the answer is that students do want this, overwhelmingly so.

According to a recent survey released by Chegg (source: PR Newswire), students are collaborating both in person and online and interested in doing so even more. Some numbers:

Students are collaborating both in person and online.

  •  47% plan to or are considering using an online study group in the upcoming school year.
  • 40% would be very or extremely likely to use an online study group.
  • 51% would be likely or extremely likely to chat online with an expert in real time to answer questions.
  • The number of students planning to use online tutoring or homework help this school year is expected to double from last year.
  • The number of students who might try online tutoring or homework help next year will increase 5X.

The need for education-focused technology tools is exploding.

  •  64% would be very likely or extremely likely to use an online assistant that automatically compiles study materials for each class.
  •  45% would be very or extremely likely to use online courses.
  •  44% would be very likely or extremely likely to use an app store for finding learning tools.
  •  39% said online study guides are very helpful.

Interactive content is the next frontier in education.

  •  67% said they would be very or extremely likely to use video tutorials that explain difficult concepts.
  •  62% would be very or extremely likely to use audio lectures of their class supplemented with lecture notes and highlights.
  •  32% said interactive simulations of concepts are very helpful.

Chegg is banking on these numbers turning into sales, memberships, and revenue. If so, the social graph will be complete and Chegg will have demonstrated its ability to generate revenue in a year-round model, something that others have tried to do in the past but failed.

eBook Review – Kno – Adds More Features

As the 2012 back-to-school season picks up speed, so do the updates to eBooks and eBook platforms. Tech providers know that now is the time when students decide if they will make the leap to eBooks, and if so, which device and platform they will choose. That said, Kno recently released a set of updates to its eBook platform. To keep everyone up to speed, here are links to my previous coverage of Kno’s development:

Kno – eBook Review
Kno – eBook Review Follow Up

And now for the new updates:

Collaboration Tools: Now, through the use of social media, students and teachers can share highlights, notes, and more within the content of their books. The system is designed so that teachers can create within the document and then share it with students outside of the classroom. Additionally, students can share with whomever they choose, whether it be a classmate or anyone else using the same eTextbook.

Expanded Platform: The Kno Android app, which is available for free download, will now be preloaded on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 device. In addition, Kno announced that the app will also be available for previously excluded Windows 7 mobile devices.

Advanced Search: Search now includes all notes, textbooks, and PFDs, thus powerfully including and indexing must-find information and making it easily available.

Five New Technologies That Have Changed the Digital Classroom

In the recent past, the suggestion of getting a college degree without ever cracking a book meant paying a degree mill. It meant the degree was name only, reflecting neither learning nor effort. Then distance learning meant correspondence courses, perhaps combined with some coordinated telecasts. Technology has already changed all that, and the future will change it even further.


Now, online college students can obtain legitimate college degrees without cracking a book– but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to read. Even with hard copy texts available, most students download their textbooks in password protected Portable Document Format (PDF). Not only is this a “green” alternative, but you avoid the weight of having to carry around textbooks.

Students can copy the PDF to mobile devices, and carry all of their texts on one iPad or Galaxy Tab. They choose to print whole books, only parts, or just use the digital document. A drawback to depending on protected PDFs is that they only open with active internet connections — but once opened students can use them until closed.

Virtual Libraries

Most online school programs — even those which still use correspondence course designs have robust virtual libraries – something that never existed 15 years ago. Many colleges and universities contract with EBSCO Publishing to maximize available peer reviewed journals. Even traditional students use EBSCO Host in college libraries. Distance learners access the same journals as campus students — from anywhere in the world. Students quickly build up their own virtual libraries of thousands of journal articles, just as mobile as any e-text. Renaming these files as closely as possible to the required bibliographic format, and cataloguing them, keeps them organized, accessible, and easy to cite in papers.

Online School Portals

Until now, resources for modern distance learning seem only different in form from correspondence courses. That changes with online school portals. These virtual campuses come complete with individual rooms for each class. They are so significant an innovation that they could change the future of on campus studies. Anticipating how ubiquitous technology should become, some schools already require on campus students to take at least one class online. This innovation means students need not all be present at once. More, many schools are now integrating social media into their portals – so students can correspond about classes and socially connect for pleasure.

Each school has minimum requirements for quality, quantity and timeliness of posts and responses. The most successful online college students check-in early and often.

Webcams & Teleconferencing

With the advance of higher bandwidth, real time webcasts have become a reality for online courses. Some schools still set most of their distance learning around attending formal classes, and allow this method as a supplement. Other colleges choose to use up such heavy bandwidth only for specific lessons, allowing students and teachers to get to know each other better. Lectures that do not change need not have all the students watch at once, so schools now make them available to download as needed. Downloading is quickly replacing mailed audio and video recordings as a preferred media delivery method. Webcams and teleconferencing have added a new element of interactivity to the virtual classroom that cannot be matched.

Mobile Apps & Augmented Reality

Mobile apps may present the biggest challenges for colleges with growing online programs. Augmented Reality (AR) apps interest schools. This cutting-edge technology is so young that its full potential still requires exploration. AR allows students to point mobile device cams at objects around them. The screen image offers information about what they see. Schools might use them for mobile testing, for example asking questions about objects on museum visits or historic tours. They could allow astronomy students to point a device at the night sky for the screen to identify stars or outline constellations. Common availability of such apps may still be out of reach. Their promise shows that with technology in distance learning, the sky really is the limit.

eBook Review: Flatworld Knowledge MIYO

Today is a very special edition of our eBook review series. Today we get to take a look at the unique publishing tools offered by Flatworld Knowledge. If you missed our review of the student side of Flatworld, you can check it out here.

As I mentioned in the student side review, all Flatworld Knowledge books are under a creative commons license as opposed to an all rights reserved license that most publisher use. For students this may not mean much but for educators it makes all the difference. Essential this ‘open license’ allows teachers to pick up a standard textbook for their course and customize it to fit their needs.

Flatworld calls this feature MIYO (pronounced Meeyo) which stands for Make It Your Own. When a teacher chooses to use Flatworld, they first sign up with an educator account and then find a book for their course. While not every course will have an appropriate textbook, Flatworld boasts a diverse catalog that covers many of the general credit courses most liberal arts college students are required to take.

After locating the appropriate book, teachers can choose to ‘Adopt This Book’ which puts it into the ‘Your Adoptions’ menu. Adopting a book prompts the teacher to enter a variety of data about their course which allows students to easily find their professors specific book later.

The next step is where MIYO comes in. From the ‘My Adoptions’ menu, teachers can pull up their book in a view almost identical to the student view except they have a variety of editing options. Editing is simple and easy and works a lot like editing a word document. Professors can easily delete any chapter or subsection that isn’t relevant with a single click.

Adding chapters or sections is just as easy, even if writing them is not. Professors can use this feature for anything from simply copy/pasting their lecture notes for each chapter in as a sub section, or they can add an entire chapter to cover something the book leaves out.

Maybe adding an entire chapter is  a bit much, but you’d like to adjust the existing chapters. In the editing view, professors can pull up any section as if to read it, then double click the text to begin editing at the sentence level. Say a professor has been teaching an economics course for a few years and has noticed students have a very hard time with a certain concept. Rather than add a new section, they can simply insert their own additional explanation into the text as supplemental material.

After making adjustments to the text, publishing it takes just a couple clicks and it is ready to be viewed by students. A custom link to your text is provided after making an update which can easily be emailed out to a class list. Even making changes mid semester is easy, and students will see the new material instantly in their online versions.

Of course the best part for students and educators is that the online version of ANY book on Flatworld Knowledge is completely free to read. With basically no barrier to entry, Flatworld Knowledge has changed the game for students and faculty alike. Greater customization and versatility for teachers and free books for students make so much sense it’s hard to believe this platform isn’t the norm already, but it will take time to wrestle a foothold in the industry away from traditional textbook publishers that have had a hold on the market for decades.

Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But the Bookstore? Reaction

The article written on Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But the Bookstore? Part 1 and Part 2 have provided some extra comments and I wanted to share them with you.  Here are what some others have said about the topic.

Rafter –http://rafter.com/thetruth/assets/pdfs/Rafter_The_Truth_About_Textbooks.pdf

Brian Jacobs – Akadamos – http://www.universitybusiness.com/article/curious-longevity-college-bookstore

Response from NACS – http://thetextbookguru.com/2012/08/07/i-cant-find-my-textbook/#comments

This is obviously hot topic with many opinions.  Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But the Bookstore? Part 2

The other day I started a rant, i mean blog, on custom textbooks. If you didn’t read part 1, here it is. As we look forward we pick up speaking about custom and its growth. Please enjoy.

The custom model is not new and actual numbers are difficult to determine as nobody produces a list of all the custom ISBN numbers and the related main editions (the unmodified text and original ISBN). Thus, it is nearly impossible for any third party to index all the ISBNs that are associated with the main core text, which is actually kind of scary. I mean, publishers and bookstores are terrified of so-called pirated editions yet they are creating something that isn’t so very different in that it’s a variation of an original for which there are repercussions. Sure, the copyright is legit, but a custom edition has about as much buyback value as a pirated scanned PDF of the core text, which is to say, likely none and it cannot be sold through most channels.

As the world of custom grows, so do the players in the space. Flat World Knowledge has taken a big step in this world with the MIYO (make it yourself) model. In this model, the professor is given one of the core texts in the Flat World Knowledge catalog. From there, the professor can add custom notes, videos, and other features to make the book a unique and relevant edition. The student can then access the book for free online, pay for one of two online access subscriptions, or upgrade to a printed version. While these offer significant upfront savings, such books have no value at the end of the course.

The National Association of College Stores announced earlier this year an initiative to grow custom publications. They see the importance for this product and keeping the sales in the store. In the report, NACS states that “it’s more important than ever to create an exclusive channel for course materials through customization.” Really? It’s more important to provide a product that can only be purchased through one particular channel than it is to figure out how to reduce the costs to students and provide a truly valuable product? Yikes!

The kings of the custom model are for-profit schools who realized early that if they worked directly with publishers, they could create a direct profit channel with 100% sell-through. It seems to me that we should be working to determine how to lower costs and provide a better product, not fighting change and forcing students to purchase books through a single channel and leaving students with a valueless product come end of term.

At this point there’s not much students can do. My advice: If you find that your book is a custom edition, try asking the professor if other books are acceptable for the course or just how much the custom edition differs from the main text. Try going to the bookstore and looking at the cover, title, and author, then do a search online. Or even try to find a student who took the exact same course with the same prof last term and go with a grassroots buy if the custom edition hasn’t changed. Any of this will require a bit more effort but the savings could be substantial.

Amazon Enters Textbook Rental! This time renting physical books.

Last August Amazon tried to make a splash promoting a new textbook rental program.  The only problem was that this rental program was selling digital textbook rental, not the rental of a physical textbooks.  Starting last week Amazon began testing physical textbook rental and released the new product to the whole website on Monday.  The new service is an extension of the Amazon marketplace which helps protect Amazon from nexus issues.

With this textbook rental offering Amazon has clearly positioned itself to take on the college textbook market.  Earlier this summer Amazon announced a 6 month free trial to Amazon Student offering students 2-day shipping for free along with other features such as streaming movie downloads.

It will be interesting to watch how the media responds as they always jumped on Amazon’s back when they do new product releases.

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