Guest Post: Highlighter and 20 Million Minds Foundation Partnership Delivers First, Free Student-Faculty Interactive Textbook

Today’s guest post is by Jennifer Funk, a former teacher who couldn’t leave the classroom behind when she became a freelance writer. Now, she writes about education news, trends and best practices and supports innovative edtech companies that improve the lives of teachers and learners. She tweets about education and more at @jennfunk.

Scrolling through my Facebook the feed the other day, I read an update from a former student, now a college freshman, sharing that at her part-time job cataloging rare books she came across a signed book of T.S. Eliot poems. “I love my job,” she wrote.

Physical books have an undeniable charm. Serendipitous moments like my student’s simply cannot happen holding an iPad. But they also have an undeniable price tag. That’s why many predict physical textbooks will become stuff of academic lore as universities across the country move forward with plans to put a digital textbook in every student’s hands — or, more accurately, every student’s electronic device.

This, despite significant student protest about the “clumsiness” of e-textboooks.

But, university officials like Bradley Wheeler, the vice president of information technology at Indiana University, argue that students and some faculty are unhappy with e-textbooks mostly because they’re unfamiliar with them.

“Over time you start to see [new technologies] become more mainstream,” Wheeler told the Chronicle in August. ”As the technology improves, the skills and even attitudes toward use improve.”

Education company Highlighter and non-profit 20 Million Minds Foundation (20MM) are hoping to quiet voices of discontent by doing just what Wheeler predicts: improve the tech and make the unfamiliar familiar again. 

Their recent partnership, in conjunction with OpenStax College and Rice University, to produce the “the first student-faculty interactive textbook,” Introduction to Sociology, is a case in point.

The textbook brings together Highlighter’s tool that renders digital texts “markable” and 20MM’s vision for quality, OER, free textbooks for every student. The result is an e-textbook with familiar features, like highlighting, annotating and comments, and one not-so-familiar feature: a $0 price tag.

This is an achievement representing what could be the future of e-textbooks: free, open and interactive.

Seattle-based Highlighter came on the scene in 2011 via TechStars with its single line of JavaScript rendering any blog or website markable (highlights, annotations, comments) and sharable (Twitter, Facebook, e-mail). It has recently transitioned into an education-publishing platform where professors can use the HTML5 app to publish course materials to the web or an e-text format (PDF, Word, PowerPoint, Excel and ePUB), share them with students, and track engagement.

The ability to track student engagement, or provide learning analytics, capitalizes on the trend in ed tech to make learning personalized, and therefore, more effective. It’s the feature that takes Highligter from merely a useful reading and sharing tool to a powerful teaching tool. Professors can leverage the data that tells them who’s reading, who’s highlighting, who’s commenting, and who’s sharing to guide in-class discussions and identify and track students who are lagging behind.

It’s these benefits to teachers and learners that landed Highlighter on Hack Education’s Best Ed-Tech Startups of 2011 and made the company particularly suitable for a partnership with 20MM.

For its part, 20MM’s mission is to “support the creation, sharing, and proliferation of more effective and affordable educational content by leveraging disruptive technologies, open educational resources, and new models for collaboration.”

It says statistics like one in four students failing to complete post-secondary school and 60 percent citing the high cost of textbooks as a contributing factor, led to the creation ofIntroduction to Sociology, and others they hope will follow.

In fact, another book 20MM rolled out this fall, College Physics, while not integrated with Highligher capability, is still providing financial relief to a number of California community college students, where much of the outreach has focused. With a reported 55 adoptions reaching more than 5,000 students this fall, the plan is to double adoptions by Spring 2013.

In many ways what’s happening at Highlighter and 20MM is indicative of larger trends in the education technology space. Highligher, for example, sits at the intersection of twin movements toward e-textbooks and learning analytics. 20MM represents non-profit foundations pumping resources into making learning more accessible in the face of rising tuition and textbook costs.

And, their partnership, of course, is an example of entities crossing sectors to find long-term solutions for all.

For these reasons, Highlighter and 20MM are organizations to watch.