Google, Electronic Textbooks, and Collaborative Schooling?

A series of Google patent applications describe the use of an electronic textbook reader application that makes using an electronic textbook a much better experience than just reading a book on a screen.

I remember lugging around a lot of books while traveling to classes on foot or my bicycle, or even while driving to law school. As an English degree undergraduate, I got away with buying a lot of my books for literature classes from a used book store (I probably left with a few hundred dollars in trade-in credit). Many of those were paperbacks that didn’t put a burden on the backpacks I wore out in those years, but many others were weighty volumes. Especially the texts from law school. I couldn’t carry all of my law school texts at the same time if I wanted – they just took up too much space.

A screenshot from the patent showing a electronic textbook reader application interface, including tabs for syllabus, book, notebook, and lectures

Google published 6 patents last week that cover different aspects of the use of electronic textbooks that attempt to capture some of the benefits of using real books while adding new value to the use of electronic texts. As the first patent I’ve listed notes:

Although some attempts have been made to transform study material from Gutenberg’s era to the digital era, some of the advantages of using paper books for study purposes have not been replicated. Students from time immemorial have used their texts in different ways.

Some highlight portions of particular interest; others place notes in the margins to keep track of clarifications of difficult concepts. Some used textbooks are more useful than new ones because they naturally fall open to the most important pages after repeated use, or because particularly important pages or sections are more dog-eared than others. Electronic reading devices have not to date provided interfaces to implement some of these subtle yet important features that help students learn from their texts most efficiently*.

* My Emphasis.

Are the patent applications an indication that Google might start selling or renting electronic textbooks? It’s hard to say for certain. The patent filings are an indication that they’ve explored the idea.

Would you rent or buy electronic textbooks that make it easy for you to remember what you had been looking at and doing with the textbook last, including using a gesture to get you to the place you had last left off?

Or display or hide annotations that you’ve left on the book with a gesture, or by moving your ebook reader in a certain way?

Or even to find out more about books or articles that might be referenced in an ebook, including publisher, price, user feedback, and sources if available.

The electronic textbooks described would also enable you to share notes in a collaborative manner between members of a study group, or even publicly, or to use a specific gesture to connect with a teaching assistant or the class professor to ask questions. For example:

As a second example, specific annotations are immediately recognized as corresponding to commands rather than actual annotations. For example, in one embodiment a handwritten annotation in the form of a question mark with a circle around it is interpreted as a request to send a question regarding the nearby text to the appropriate teaching assistant for that course (or other predetermined moderator), and a dialog box immediately opens, preaddressed to the teaching assistant, allowing the student to ask the question.

In one embodiment, the message to the teaching assistant is automatically tagged with the corresponding portion of the text so that the student does not need to include any context with the specific question, but can just include the question in a way that might be confusing without context. For example, if the text shows an illegal divide-by-zero operation, the student’s question could simply be: “Why can’t you do this?” without any further contextual information.

You could also set up a way to quickly move to a glossary section of a page, and then back to where you were previously, and then back again quickly.

If you wanted to clip and copy a portion of the textbook into an electronic notebook to include with notes, instead of leaving an annotation within the body of the book, that’s also a possibility.

Another aspect of this electronic text application would be to make it very easy to quickly create a personal study guide. It can take a fair amount of time to do that – I remember suggesting to a friend who entered law school in my last year that he use a laptop for all of the briefs that he created, so that he could quickly pull the important parts out into a study guide for each class.

The patent filings themselves provide more details on features that could be associated with the electronic textbook reading application involved. I’ve read enough to wish that I had one of these readers in the classes I took, and didn’t wear out all of the book bags that I did.

Here are the patent applications:

Electronic Book Contextual Menu Systems and Methods
Invented by James Patterson, Nathan Moody, and Scott Dougall
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20120221972
Published August 30, 2012
Filed: July 14, 2011

Abstract

An electronic book system provides interfaces particularly suited to students’ use of textbooks. A finger press on a touch screen produces a contextual menu with user choices that relate to where the finger was pressed or what the user was recently doing with the book. A student provisionally navigates through a book by a specific gesture which, when it stops, returns the user to the previous position in the book. Annotations are displayed and hidden using specific gestures and through selective movement of the reader as sensed by its accelerometer.

Electronic Book Navigation Systems and Methods
Invented by James Patterson, Nathan Moody, and Scott Dougall
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20120221968
Published August 30, 2012
Filed: July 14, 2011

Abstract

An electronic book system provides interfaces particularly suited to students’ use of textbooks. A finger press on a touch screen produces a contextual menu with user choices that relate to where the finger was pressed or what the user was recently doing with the book. A student provisionally navigates through a book by a specific gesture which, when it stops, returns the user to the previous position in the book. Annotations are displayed and hidden using specific gestures and through selective movement of the reader as sensed by its accelerometer.

Electronic Book Interface Systems and Methods
Invented by James Patterson, Nathan Moody, and Scott Dougall
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20120221938
Published August 30, 2012
Filed: June 28, 2011

Abstract

An electronic book system provides interfaces particularly suited to students’ use of textbooks. A finger press on a touch screen produces a contextual menu with user choices that relate to where the finger was pressed or what the user was recently doing with the book. A student provisionally navigates through a book by a specific gesture which, when it stops, returns the user to the previous position in the book. Annotations are displayed and hidden using specific gestures and through selective movement of the reader as sensed by its accelerometer.

Systems and Methods for Remote Collaborative Studying Using Electronic Books
Invented by James Patterson, Nathan Moody, and Scott Dougall
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20120221937
Published August 30, 2012
Filed: July 14, 2011

Abstract

An electronic book system provides interfaces particularly suited to students’ use of textbooks. A finger press on a touch screen produces a contextual menu with user choices that relate to where the finger was pressed or what the user was recently doing with the book. A student provisionally navigates through a book by a specific gesture which, when it stops, returns the user to the previous position in the book. Annotations are displayed and hidden using specific gestures and through selective movement of the reader as sensed by its accelerometer.

IDENTIFYING AND USING BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES IN ELECTRONIC BOOKS
Invented by James Patterson and Nathan Moody
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20120221441
Published August 30, 2012
Filed: August 24, 2011

Abstract

An electronic book system recognizes patterns in texts that correspond to bibliographical references. User selection of a bibliographical reference causes a digital copy of the work referenced to be made available to the user. Factors such as price, reference format and user feedback are used to select a source from which the digital copy of the work is obtained.

Systems and Methods for Manipulating User Annotations in Electronic Books
Invented by James Patterson, Nathan Moody, and Scott Dougall
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20120218305
Published August 30, 2012
Filed: July 14, 2011

Abstract

An electronic book system provides interfaces particularly suited to students’ use of textbooks. A finger press on a touch screen produces a contextual menu with user choices that relate to where the finger was pressed or what the user was recently doing with the book. A student provisionally navigates through a book by a specific gesture which, when it stops, returns the user to the previous position in the book. Annotations are displayed and hidden using specific gestures and through selective movement of the reader as sensed by its accelerometer.

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18 thoughts on “Google, Electronic Textbooks, and Collaborative Schooling?”

  1. Pingback: Google, Electronic Textbooks, and Collaborative Schooling? - Inbound.org
  2. I think educational eBooks will be the next big thing. Nowadays the market is not yet ready because of generational issues, but no doubt that the benefits of electronic books are there:
    – Can be re-usable for other people: they are always new;
    – The ecological issues are safeguarded;
    – Can be interactive;
    – Can include knowledge tests for each subject studied;
    – May allow the creation of a study guide;
    – Enable collaboration features;
    – Among other benefits.

    I think Google is trying to patent all possibilities in interacting with e-books so can lead the educational market that will be transformed into something massive as today’s music or digital cinema.

  3. Google has always been a best source for knowledge even I am afraid to think of internet without google. :)

  4. Huge move here!
    After seeing books on Google Play I was sure that something was coming.
    I’ve an Asus tablet with Android and I’ve the ability to put bookmarks on pages and underline some text.

    Well, thinking as a student, e-learning books have to improve but the new education through media is a near future

  5. Educational textbooks/reading being in eBook format will be very interesting, not to mention convenient for students. There’s so much potential there – videos, slideshows, 3d models, lesson quizzes, organized notes, and that’s probably just the start.

  6. I’m in two minds on this issue. Firstly, I’m pleased about the idea of electronic text books. But on the other hand, these patents are garbage and the reason that it’s impossible for anyone to make anything without paying out zillions in licence fees to big companies. None of these ideas are original, they are just being applied to a new area and one that I’m sure has been considered by many other people and companies. The patent system definitely needs an overhaul and fast.

  7. Bill,

    great read. I just started working with SEO for an educational software company, this is amazing connection or coincidence. I have done a ton of research on the subject and understand the market in a very deep way. Here are two thoughts. Kids LOVE technology, and its easier to sell them on the benefits of using it it class, therefore it works better than traditional, two.. the search volume on these BYOT ( bring your own technology) terms are skyrocketing. This is just plain old market mover stuff. nuff’ said.- Matt

  8. Absolutely agree that the patent apps are essentially adapting new technology to old uses, so not really anything inventive. IMO the “Apple effect” is largely to blame for patent applications like these.

    Waaayy too many similarly obvious, non-inventive, or vague patents have been granted to Apple who attempts to use them as brick walls in a ploy to keep other tech players from competing with their products. Whether the patents would survive re-exam even if initially being approved doesn’t matter as much as delaying or temporarily removing competing products with IP infringement claims. I don’t think Google (or others) have much choice but to do things the Apple way: File for patents on every development or adaptation no matter how trivial or questionable. It’s a minor expense compared to IP lawsuits.

  9. @Bill

    OMG! What I would have given to have textbooks on an e-pad in college.

    Yeah, I really loved hauling around those 5-ton chemistry and calculus books all day.

    That is a really cool idea.

    I guess the idea of e-college-texts is really the next logical step isn’t it. LOL!

    BTW Bill, do you double as a lawyer?

    Mark

    P.S. You should add a plugin to your WordPress installation that sends me an email when you respond. I love it when blogs do that. Much more interactive that way. A lot of times I forget to check for your response. Just a thought :)

  10. Hi Bill,
    I remember spending hours in libraries for my final bachelor’s degree paper but for grad school having google scholar and google books really changed the style of studying. Our class materials now get distributed electronically, making it easy to search and bookmark. I admit I miss the feeling of flipping pages and highlighting lines, in this increasingly digital world.
    cheers, Priyank

  11. I wish we had this when I was going to school. I used to have to carry what must have been 60lbs worth of books. Our kids are lucky and have no idea what a huge help and advantage they have to have everything all in one unit +intenet. All I can say is LUCKY!

  12. Educational textbooks/reading being in eBook format will be very interesting, not to mention convenient for students.I think educational eBooks will be the next big thing.I wish we had this when I was going to school.

  13. I don’t think this will come into effect anytime soon. The introduction of EText books could be detrimental for an already budget cut heavy university system. Especially with used text books, the book store is one of the ways the schools generate revenue. With the introduction of Ebooks, I guarantee college students would just create a Free-book network where after a few years nobody would need to purchase books unless there was a version update. Common even if you could not write in the margins or highlight certain things, when the book is free the book is free.

    We all know how smart Google is and how much money they have. If they wanted to solve these problems, they would. I think the problem will be getting the schools on board with getting rid of their used book profits.

  14. I disagree with the commenter who said the market is not ready yet. It is more than ready and about time this stuff gets implemented.

  15. Electronic textbooks are definitely coming, and to a real extent are already here. When I was buying textbooks last semester, a majority of the big online sites (like Chegg) had online versions, and even the publisher sites do.

    My problems with this are:

    1) The cost is usually almost the same as the physical version (which also makes it much more expensive than buying used, plus with used books you can resell them)

    2) I have a hard time looking at a device that long. I much prefer paper so I can do writing and highlighting (and I know you can do both of those with portable devices, but it’s really not the same)

  16. I am looking forward to Schools moving to electronic text books. I just took a course where I was able to download the PDF version of the book while being out of country. I do think that there is lots of limitations still with electronic text books, but it is great to see that Google is pushing forward making it better.

  17. This is definitely a LONG time coming. Educational book selling has turned into a monopoly. I worked at a college where the books per semester were seriously as much or more than the tuition.

  18. Though electronic text books made reading/learning easier and absolutely one feel much easy while travelling or walking but in my opinion I enjoy more reading anything if it is in hard form.

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