posted November 4, 2002

Professor Creating Collaborative E-Book

A Hope College computer science professor is seeking to blend the best of two worlds as he develops an electronic textbook for hand-held computers.

Dr. Ryan McFall has received a two-year, $75,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of his effort to develop an electronic computer science textbook. He is hoping to combine the qualities that make traditional printed books convenient with the additional possibilities of on-line, shared text.

"I view it in two ways," he said. "One is that I certainly have to replicate the features of a paper textbook. Everybody likes to highlight, everybody likes to underline, everybody likes to fold the pages over--you name it."

"The thing that the digital medium allows you to do is to extend that to a collaborative arena," he said.

"An electronic textbook enables student-to-student and student-to-instructor communication directly within the textbook," McFall said. "This type of discussion would be helpful to clarify and explore more deeply elements of the text that are hard to understand. The hope is that features such as this will transform reading of the textbook from a passive to a more active learning environment."

Students will be able to indicate portions of the text that they find difficult, seeking additional help from peers or their teachers. Instructors can emphasize sections that they feel are important or elaborate on those sections of the text that may be difficult for students to understand. Students and instructors alike will be able to personalize the text by adding their own examples or comments. McFall noted that the digital nature of the medium allows such customizations to be easily shared, facilitating a collaborative approach to textbook reading.

McFall is working with colleague Dr. Michael Jipping, associate professor of computer science, and a team of student researchers. Work began this summer, with students writing the prototype system.

The textbook itself will be for the college's introductory class in computer science. McFall, however, is hoping that the approach that he and his research team are developing will prove useful in other disciplines as well.

McFall noted that hand-held computers, portable and increasingly powerful, should provide a natural platform for the project. As he continues to work on the textbook and the program that drives it, however, he has not yet found what he considers to be the ideal match: hand-held computing is an area in which the technology--the hardware-- is also still developing. In the meantime, the team is developing the pilot computer science text with laptop computers in mind. The plan is to start testing the system at the college this spring.

McFall has been a member of the Hope faculty since 2000, and is a 1993 Hope graduate. He completed his master's and doctorate at Michigan State University, in 1995 and 2000 respectively.

More information about the research project may be found at: http://www.cs.hope.edu/etext/