Posts Tagged ‘ eBook review ’

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.

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.

eBook Review: Flatworld Knowledge

Here we are with another eBook review, this time for a platform with a rather interesting business model. Today we’re taking a look at Flatworld Knowledge, the self proclaimed “world’s largest publisher of free and open college textbooks.”

Flatworld Knowledge describes themselves as a “college textbook publishing company on a mission.” What mission is that? Simple, to lower the cost of textbooks for students and allow faculty to control the material they teach and the materials their students are required to purchase. How do they do this? First and most importantly by ditching the traditional ‘All Rights Reserved’ license that most publishers use for a ‘Creative Commons license’ which is an open-license. For faculty this means “unprecedented control over content” and “permission to create a derivative version of any textbook.”
Essentially, faculty have the ability to modify any textbook offered by Flatworld Kowledge to custom fit their purposes. This can involve removing materials that won’t be covered in the course, adding links, videos or entirely new passages. As you can see from this search for “Introductory Chemistry,” there are several different versions the text specific to different professors at different universities.

Many college students well tell you it’s very frustrating when you’re forced to purchase an expensive textbook and in the end the professor only covers a portion of it. In addition to cutting out unused material, this control allows professors to insert their own which is arguably much more valuable. Rather than filling lecture slides with notes, links to external materials and videos or images, professors can wrap all this material up in their assigned text, saving them and their students a lot of time and hassle.

The customization of texts is extremely valuable, but lets save that discussion for another review (stay tuned…). Right now we are focusing on the student experience with Flatworld Knowledge. For starters, signing up is simple and straight forward, and searching the catalog by your professor’s name, school name or course name makes finding your customized text easy. After you’ve located your text you must select what format you’d like to use.

To the delight of students everywhere, the basic digital “Free Pass” version is completely free to view through your browser. Next up is the “Study Pass” which has added features such as highlighting, note taking, interactive study tools such as flash cards and “Study View” which gives you a condensed version of key points, objectives and definitions. The most robust version is the “All Access Pass” which gives you all the features of the “Study Pass” as well as a downloadable PDF version for printing and the true eTextbook version for viewing on your iPad, Kindle, Nook or other eReader of choice.

Even the “All Access Pass” is still very inexpensive when compared even to other eTextbook retailers, let alone traditional printed textbooks. However if you just can’t study without a hard copy of the text to flip through and mark up, you can order a black and white printed and bound copy for a bit more than the “All Access Pass.” Or you can spring for the full fledged color textbook for what you’d expect to pay for a book at your school bookstore. To me it seems a bit counter intuitive to purchase a traditional textbook from an etextbook company that is offering the same material for free, but hey, some people just really need a paper version.

For me, it makes the most sense to just bookmark the free browser based version of each book assigned to you. With such a plethora of mobile devices with on board web browsers, it isn’t difficult for most students to get access to their books anywhere, anytime. Nook and Kindle users are out of luck it would seem, but if you’re packing an iPad or smart phone, your FREE textbook can be with you anytime.

The browser based reading experience is surprisingly pleasant. A sidebar of chapters and subchapters makes navigation easy, images are vivid and diagrams are easy to read. A wider view option allows near full screen viewing. I only see two major downsides to sticking with the free version. First is the lack of study tools such as highlighting, note taking and study guides. So for this you’ll have to make a personal judgement about how useful these tools are for you. The second downside is eye fatigue from prolonged use. This is a large selling point for Nook and Kindle users, and if you have one and are prone to extended studying sessions, it might be worth the $40 or so to get the digital eTextbook version.

While the Flatworld platform and unique business model are a solid foundation, their catalog is still growing. They have a good foundation of texts in different disciplines, but their biggest hurdle is adoption among professors. Being a publisher and a retailer, Flatworld must first publish high quality textbooks, then get professors to adopt them for a course, then have the infrastructure to also distribute the text to students. Competitors like Kno and Inkling need only worry about providing a platform for distributing publishing company texts that have already been adopted at schools across the country. It seems the road for Flatworld is largely up hill, but with a unique and adaptable platform such as this, a little traction can go a long way. If the circumstances are right, and adoption increases, Flatworld Kowledge has the potential to be a game changer in the textbook publishing and retail world.

eBook Review: iBook

Here we are, four reviews deep into the Textbook Guru eBook review series. If you’d like to take a look back at my other reviews, you can find them here: Kno, Inkling, CourseSmart, Chegg.  For our fifth review, I’ve chosen to take a look at the iBooks platform by Apple. I’ve chosen this platform for a couple reasons. First, being Apples native eBook reader, it is likely that iBooks is installed on more mobile devices that any other platform we’ve reviewed. Whether or not users are taking advantage of this pre-installed app is hard to say. Second, the iBook platform is the first in our series to allow self publishing. So whether you’re a self publishing author, or just need to have your own documents readily available, iBooks allows you to upload your own PDFs into the app.

PURCHASING

Self publishing is a lot of fun, but lets get down to why we are really here, to review textbooks. If you’ve ever downloaded an app to your iPhone or iPad, or purchased an album on iTunes, then you are already familiar with the purchasing process in the iBooks platform.

Finding and purchasing any book only takes a few clicks (or finger taps). When searching for a textbook, you will usually have an ISBN or the full title an author, which makes searching a breeze. However, if you’re looking for more casual reading, the ‘featured’ and ‘browse’ tabs are a great way to see what kind of books (typically fiction) are popular on iBooks. But we’re after textbooks, so if you sort by category, you’ll find that all the textbooks iBooks has to offer in one place. Many of them you can ‘sample’ by downloading a free chapter to take a preview of the features.

FEATURES

Apple has been a big player in eBooks for a while, a market they grew quickly thanks to the iPad and iPhone apps that help you view all you iBooks on any device.  However, recently they have started getting into the eTextbook market. Studying is probably one of the last things you’d think to use an iPad for but it is increasingly becoming a platform for consuming any and all media, so why should textbooks be separate? Apple touts a lot of exciting eTextbook features that are becoming popular such as 3D models, embedded video and interactive quizzes. Lets dive in and take a look at the iBooks experience from start to finish.

The photo above is your ‘Library’ which is the central place to find all your downloaded books or documents. Foregoing a simple list, Apple has a visually simple and intuitive virtual bookshelf for your digital books. This is a small touch, and isn’t much different than Chegg or Kno which use thumbnails of your book covers as buttons, but having them organized on a bookshelf makes them feel more like real books and less like files to be opened.

Once you open a book, you have a simple and hide-able menu bar at the top of each page that contain all your tools. The first and most obvious tool is the ‘Library’ button which just takes you back to your virtual book shelf. The next is a menu to help you jump from page to page in the book without flipping. This menu lets you skip between chapters in the book and the next menu which looks like a note pad lets you jump between bookmarks and notes that you have set while reading. As simple as this kind of navigation is, I have to say Apple did well to put all these markers in one place as opposed to others that have made notes and bookmarks navigable through their own menus. Apple has also included a traditionally simple bookmark tool that is always accessible in the upper right of any page. Just tap the small greyed bookmark logo and it will be replaced with a bright red bookmark to save your place.


Next on your menu bar is your settings options, indicated by a pair of capital A’s. This pop up menu allows you to adjust the brightness of your screen through a slide bar and the size of the font through two size buttons. Again, a very simple way to do very simple things. Of course, what eBook platform would be complete without a search function? iBooks allows you to search within the text, on the web or directly through Wikipedia. I find it humorous that so many teachers have a vendetta against Wikipedia and it’s use in academia as source material, however so many search tools love to include it as a searchable reference. As controversial as Wikipedia is in the academic community, I think this is proof that it is still a valuable resource for many students.

Next lets look at the more advanced features iBooks has to offer. For starters, iBooks is only the second platform I’ve reviewed to offer 3D modeling in some of its eBooks. It’s hard to see in a still image, but the molecule below is interactive directly in the page, unlike Kno which has to open an overlay window to make models interactive.

iBooks also has embedded video and image slide shows, like in the image below. Figure 1 is an image slideshow containing 4 images (indicated by the dots below the caption). Sliding your finger across the image flips it to the next image. In the next column, Figure 2 is a playable video, a very handy way for eTextbook publishers to emphasize or further explain a complicated theory.

One of my favorite features on iBooks is one I haven’t seen anywhere else, virtual study cards. Similar to the way iBooks displays your library as a bookshelf, it displays study cards as traditional 3″x5″ note cards. These have chapter specific glossery terms on them so you can quiz yourself. Simply define each term then flip the card to see if you got it right. Swiping puts the card at the bottom of the deck and moves on to the next one.

Each section and chapter has a review section to help you remember what you learned. This is nothing new for textbooks, but many iBooks textbooks have interactive quiz questions built into these section reviews. You get to chose an answer for each question and instantly see if your correct or not. The beginning of each section also has study tools to help you generally understand what will be covered in detail in the coming section.

CONCLUSIONS

For the features it offers, iBooks delivers them in Apples traditionally simple yet elegant way. As a general eReader, iBooks is a solid choice and integrates easily into the lives of any iOS device owner. As a study tool for eTextbook users, I think iBooks is a great choice because it is leading the move to digital with many of the most advanced features found in eTextbooks today, but wrapped up in Apple’s intuitive and simple design. The iBooks library of eTextbooks is growing as Apple expands into this market, and chances are many of your textbooks are already available. I think it’s important to note that if you are in a communication or writing field of study, iBooks is likely to have all your assigned novels, biographys, non-fiction etc. This means that iBooks could be your central place not only for textbooks, but other assigned readings (including PDFs your tech savvy professor uploads) and any books you find time to read just for fun.

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