Edinburgh University Trial of a Pearson Online Textbook

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The University of Edinburgh have been collaborating with Pearson to trial the online delivery of teaching materials to our first year undergraduate Business Studies course.

The first-year course covers the whole range of academic business disciplines, from organisation studies to management science. To accommodate this diversity, we have worked with Pearson to produce a two-volume custom textbook including chapters from Pearson textbooks to support each block of the course. The block of eight Operations Management lectures has just finished and is supported by five chapters from “Operations and Process Management” by Slack, Brandon-Jones, Johnston and Betts.

The genesis for this trial came only five weeks ago when I was visited by Melissa Sabella, Head of Digital Strategy and Innovation, Learning Solutions at Pearson. Melissa outlined Pearson’s ideas for providing students with online versions of textbooks accessible on any device, with the opportunity for students to add notes to the texts and for lecturers to add additional course materials. This sounded like an interesting idea, so I suggested that the first-year course, with nearly 500 students and based around Pearson texts, would be an interesting trial of this approach, and selfishly suggested that the Operations Management block of the course starting in two weeks time would be a particularly good place to start. Pearson then impressively expedited the creation of a collection of the Operations Management texts and created a website for students to sign-up for access.

The selling points to students for taking part in the trial were that they would not need to carry around the textbook, have access to it on other devices anywhere at anytime, and it would also include additional material. In putting together the custom text it would have been expensive to include a chapter related to every session, but the online trial allowed some of the missing sections to be included. We also included a chapter on innovation from another Pearson text and even an edited section from Wikipedia. The downside for the students is that most of the material in the online trial is in the course text that they had already paid to buy.

Pearson surveyed the students who enrolled in the trial, came and sat in on lectures , interviewed students and monitored online use. This close monitoring of use contrasts with the usual pattern in educational technology trials in the university, where cost constraints limit the evaluation to some statistics of use and follow-up questionnaires. In discussing the trial with the Pearson developer it made me realise how little lecturers know about how students use textbooks. Do students read ahead of the lectures, or read following the lectures, or just read for examination revision and essays? Do students read the text books at all? We do not really know. A great advantage of online technologies is that we know far more about how resources are used, abused or ignored.

The trial is also a good example of how Eric Ries’ ideas of Lean Startup have escaped from being applied in startup companies and merged with Agile IT Development methodologies to an approach to product development in large corporations. The trial platform accessible by students fitted Ries’ concept of a “minimum viable product”, providing bare functionality. The platform provided for me to edit the collections provided even more minimalist functionality. But the use of a crude platform provides developers with data that can be incorporated into the refinement of the platform in further iterations.

This application of development through engagement with users is a good reminder of the wider changes in the development of products and services coming about through the Internet of Things. In the past publishers would edit textbooks, publish them, send salespeople out to cajole academics into adopting them, and hope. The model being trialed by Pearson allows the delivery of the content to be evaluated and incrementally improved, but the same arguments apply to the content, and this Lean Startup/Agile Development approach is made possible because the internet allows data about use to be collected in real-time and allows the design of the product to be changed in use. Discussion of the collecting of data from Internet of Things devices in use, for example smart meters, has often focused on the positive potential to improve efficiency or, more critically, the risks of surveillance. However, the detailed use-data can give designers valuable insights into how their products are used and how they can be improved. If I was a designer of dishwashers, having them connected to the internet and providing me with statistics about which programmes were used and how frequently would help me identify which functions were most important to users, and collecting the data would be a lot more statistically relaible and its collection far less intrusive than having an army of anthropologists sitting in the corner of customers’ kitchens.

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