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Digital Versions Allow Instructors to Rewrite the (Text)book

Whose line is it, anyway?


A dummy textbook page, with an instructor’s insert, shows what students will see in the upcoming DynamicBooks.

The Internet has endangered things from newspapers to face-to-face conversation. Could pride of authorship be the next casualty?

Textbook behemoth Macmillan recently announced that its soon-to-launch DynamicBooks software will allow professors to take digital versions of textbooks and tailor them to their personal teaching preference, rewriting or deleting paragraphs, chapters, and graphics. DynamicBooks also enables uploading of syllabi, notes, and course-related graphics.

“I think it’s a marvelous innovation,” says Lou Ureneck, a professor and chairman of the journalism department at the College of Communication. “I see only an upside to it.” Ureneck says that as a teacher he often finds it useful to provide additional explanations or more timely examples than those in a textbook.

But what about the author? Will a student know which words come from the writer and which come from the instructor? DynamicBooks spokeswoman Karen Lippe says they will. Lippe says that whenever an instructor alters text, the page will highlight the new wording and pin an “Instructor Whomever Edit” alert on it.

“That does seem to solve the issue of a student confusing the words of the professor and the words of the author,” says Susan Samuelson, a professor of business law at the School of Management, whose text Business Law and the Legal Environment, cowritten with her late SMG colleague Jeffrey F. Beatty, is in its fifth edition.

Professors who use a DynamicBook will get unique URLs for their customized book. “They can keep their version of the textbook forever and continue to customize it for their class,” says Lippe. “In the instructor editing tool, the instructor can view all their past edits.”

Joan Salge-Blake (SAR’84), a clinical associate professor at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and a textbook author, retains a writer’s reservation. “I think it’s good that the insertions will be identified,” she says. “But there is a ‘flow’ to a book” that might be dammed when another voice intrudes. Salge-Blake’s most recent book, Nutrition and You: Core Concepts to Good Health, was published this year by Benjamin Cummings.

DynamicBooks is the latest twist on efforts to improve classroom instruction while containing runaway textbook inflation. “Students are really desperate to find a cheaper way to access what’s in the books,” Samuelson says. “And most faculty are very sensitive to the issue of how to provide material cheaper. It’s fair to say that buying the whole book is increasingly rare.”

Profs can always customize with old-fashioned ways, too. “You could say in a lecture, ‘Look, in chapter seven it says blank-blank. I don’t totally agree with this,’” notes Salge-Blake. Or don’t assign the chapter at all, adds Samuelson.

Neil F. Comins, a University of Maine astrophysicist and coauthor of Discovering the Universe, told the New York Times recently that while he welcomes professors’ improvements to his text, he’d be enraged if someone substituted religious explanations of the universe’s birth for scientific ones.

While that’s a stark example, smaller-bore collegial disputes are a textbook writer’s occupational hazard. Samuelson recalls a colleague at another school criticizing as incorrect some information in a book she wrote with Beatty. They double-checked and confirmed their information’s accuracy.

“She was just wrong,” Samuelson says of the critic. “But they get a bee in their bonnet for some reason.”

Ureneck says he’s not worried about anyone messing with his memoir Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-fishing, and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska, an award-winning account of his effort to reconnect with his son during a fishing trip in Alaska. A literary book used to teach writing and personal narrative, it — like “To be or not to be” — doesn’t lend itself to updating, even in the Internet age.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


4 Comments on Digital Versions Allow Instructors to Rewrite the (Text)book

  • Jane on 03.23.2010 at 7:00 am

    Instructors' editing textbooks

    The provision for instructors’ to edit textbooks is interesting. I can see why a instructor might like it; no surprise they think their words or examples are better. I guess I see it as less a problem if the instructor could only ADD information, but not delete the original text. That way the student gets both views, not just the one of the current instructor.

    So with this text, is it expected that the student must print out their own pages as needed? When must instructors make their edits? Hopefully before the class starts for the semester, otherwise they are demonstrating they did care enough to prepare for the class.

  • Dave on 03.23.2010 at 11:56 am


    The thought of reading an entire text book on today’s current computer screens makes me cringe (and makes my eyes hurt).

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2010 at 3:28 am


    It’s great that the modified text is going to be highlighted as a such, however I think there also should be a citation of the name of the original author, the name of the book and the page number(s) modified.

  • Michaelflyfisher on 03.24.2010 at 11:35 am

    Electronic Textbooks

    This seems like an exceptionally good idea given the fact that the Texas Board of Education sets the agenda for most textboooks published in the US and the Board hase revently taken to a major and inbelieveable revision of American History to the point of making it radical right wing beyond the hopes and dreams of even the Teabagger.

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