Using Skyepack technology to deliver an interactive parasitology e-textbook: Case study from The University of Queensland Library, Brisbane, Australia
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This is the extended abstract version of the authors’s presentation given at IFLA 2016. View the video recording of the authors’s presentation. The presentation begins at 22:13.
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The University of Queensland (UQ) Library is developing a comprehensive publishing program, which will support students, faculty and staff in their publishing aspirations. Fundamentally, this means building a flexible publishing model, which will serve the varying publishing needs across all disciplines, accommodate the needs of the diverse UQ community and be responsive to the strategic goals of the University.
This paper will discuss how the UQ Library worked with academic staff to produce an interactive textbook that was released in early 2016 using the Skyepack digital publishing technology (http://www.skyepack.com/index.html). Skyepack is a relatively new start-up company developed at Purdue University, with the University of Queensland Library being its first Australian customer. The Skyepack publishing platform allows combining course content into a comprehensive mobile learning package that provides access to the textbook both in an online and offline environment, which makes it available for students to use when they do not have Internet access.
The paper will focus on the rationale behind the initiative, the reasoning and advantages in partnering with Skyepack, the level of support provided by both the Library and Skyepack, funding of the project and the challenges and lessons learnt. Some early findings of survey results on user experience (from both students and staff) and how the inbuilt tools in the publishing platform and analytics can be used to refine the service and provide future opportunities for collaboration between the Library, researchers and publishers will also be discussed.
Aligned with The University Goals
UQ sees itself very much as a global university, having transitioned since its foundation in 1909 from one with a regional and then national focus, to a university which appears in the top 100 global universities on a range of rankings including Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities, and the QS World University Rankings where it is currently positioned as 51. A world leader in research and innovations, UQ also endeavours to change the way higher education is imagined and experienced (Australia. UQ Student Strategy, 2016).
Endorsing the new student strategy, the Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Peter Høj, acknowledges that a path is set toward a significant investment in students’ development, staffing capability and the UQ learning ecosystem. He points out that by aligning the calibre and creativity of our students and staff and the resources of our vast network of industry-leading partners with our strategic intent, we are confident of providing a student experience that exceeds expectations and sets the benchmark for higher education innovation in Australia by 2020 (Australia. UQ Student Strategy, 2016).
Aligned with the higher UQ goals is the Information and Digital Literacy Framework, which was created by the Library to guide the evolution of a coherent and comprehensive approach to information and digital literacy development, and to determine the appropriate infrastructure required to develop consistently high quality, equitable programs and resources (Australia. Information and Digital Literacy, 2016).
The synthesis of these two strategies will define how UQ is going to function in the environment where the students and their learning experiences become central to the decision-making.
How the Project Evolved
This project evolved when two academics approached UQ Library in search of a platform to deliver an interactive learning resource for a second year laboratory-based course on Parasitology for the School of Veterinary Science at UQ. The digital content was already in existence, having been originally created using iBooks Author freeware. Although the book met all the expectations of the academic staff, because of its format it failed to deliver to devices other than iPad and Mac (marginalising non-Apple users). Consequently, the academics approached the Library for any alternative solutions that would help to deliver content to various devices.
The Library secured the funding and recommended a trial of Skyepack - a company from the Purdue University - for the following reasons:
- it is a digital publishing environment, which utilises an intuitive cloud-based authoring platform to make the creation and dissemination of digital course packs seamless for faculty (Lynch and Kalb 2014);
- using HTML5 coding and responsive design, the platform streams to any device, whatever the size of the screen or the software, be it online or without the internet connection (if the off-line version is opted for);
- it allows interactivity for the content and engages students into active learning by providing tools to annotate the content with highlights, bookmarks and personalised notes;
- in comparison with traditional hard-copy textbooks, it is a more affordable resource for students since the eTextbook costs approximately AUD15 (in this case the Library funded all costs for the pilot). For comparison, an existing printed laboratory manual for this course costs students AUD20;
- it provides students with life-long access to the ever-evolving versions of the book at no additional cost and as such a life-long connection between the students and their Alma Mater and a life-long learning opportunity;
- it allows the faculty to add their teaching style to the content delivery by adding different types of quizzes or engaging students into collaboration via open-ended discussion boards, etc.;
- it offers powerful analytics that shows the level of students’ engagement with the course material;
- it provides the possibility for faculty to earn some royalty had they chosen to include it;
- an independent peer-review of the content could be arranged by Skyepack;
- the content could be sold to other universities under a separate agreement;
- and, in all that is offered, the intellectual property rights and the copyright remain with the University and the authors;
- even more to that, had Skyepack terminated its business operation, they agreed to help transition the content to similar platforms - HTML5 coded.
To gauge the accuracy and functionality, and to benchmark the Skyepack book against one other alternate solution, a UQ educational designer built a website (ShireScience) based on the content of the course. The website solution was planned to be offered to students in parallel with the resource built in collaboration with Skyepack; so the project on creating eTextbook on Parasitology began first semester January 2016.
eTextbook on Parasitology: Work in Progress
The book on Parasitology consists of 6 chapters and features an interactive parasite identification key. For both versions of eTextbook by Skyepack (online and off-line), students were required to use the pictures and associated descriptions to choose the characteristics that align with the parasite they were trying to identify. In the laboratory setting they could use their mobile devices that could take them through the content, most of which was visual aids focusing on some particular features or characteristics of various species of parasites. Undertaking a series of identification steps and comparing virtual visual results to the actual specimen they saw through their microscopes, the students could reach their diagnostic conclusions, which would respectably help them choose the right treatment for a particular host.
Images used in the book were based on a unique set of close-up photographs collected by lecturers over a fifteen-year period. Content included in the detailed descriptions of various diagnostic procedures, with information about laboratory set-up was presented to the students as text and video with instructional voice-over. Upon agreement with the lecturers and in response to the field of study, which may require students to conduct diagnostic procedures at remote farms with no Internet connection, the eTextbook was developed in 2 versions – online and offline.
The main advantage of eTextbooks is in their capacity to bring content to life. The lecturers developed interactive keys based on a series of detailed photographs which were expected to serve as a diagnostic tool for the students undertaking their laboratory classes. This level of interactivity was new to Skyepack developers. However, they came up with a technical solution to be able to include interactive keys into the book content. The Skyepack team had to work within a very tight timeline as they only had 11 weeks since the project inception to go live with the interactive educational resource – the eTextbook.
UQ and Skyepack never communicated face to face except via Skype or a Google Chat, they never sat at the table exchanging ideas or documents except via GoogleDrive or DropBox. Fully virtual collaboration has proven to be a success, even though because of the time difference between the USA and Australia, it would mostly mean that the Skyepack team, in particular its Director of Account Management, Kris Skaff and its CEO, Brady Kalb would have to Skype in with us from their home in their personal time. The commitment of the Skyepack team was commendable: the project was delivered within a very tight timeframe and any required changes during copy-editing phase were implemented with very little delay. Skyepack were responsive to our requirements. Moreover, our feedback in regards to the benefits for the students to save and print out annotations like highlights and notes, turned into an additional feature that Skyepack developed and is going to roll over for all users in 2017.
UQ was Skyepack’s first Australian customer and, in addition to the challenges of the subject material and laboratory context, we requested that the standard contract be amended to cater for Australian requirements – including a clause that Skyepack will facilitate transition of content in the event that they went bankrupt!
The Skyepack interactive textbook was available as per the agreed schedule by mid March 2016. However, when the eTextbook was introduced to the students, a few teething problems were discovered, which need to be mentioned:
- Login to Skyepack requires an email address for identification - UQ students have several email accounts so the Library supplied the ‘official’ email but not all students used this particular email. As a result, they could create an account with Skyepack but could not see or use the textbook for the first lab class. The issue was picked up and resolved. Once the students created an account with the ‘correct’ email address, they could see the book which was added beforehand to their “My Pack Collection”.
- There was a significant delay between a click and data fully open on the screen (not so much for the desktop computers but for the mobile devices like tablets and phones). This problem was difficult to reproduce and report specifics to the Skyepack team – the general complaints of the slow response time of data loading were taking into account and addressed but no visible optimisation was achieved, which was a disappointment to students and instructors. We still do not know whether it is the remote hardware (server is placed in the US) or software that caused the delay.
- The book was created very quickly so there were a few content errors. However, Skyepack responded rapidly to our feedback and fixed them quickly and at no extra cost.
- The UQ website alternative (ShireScience) was not available/introduced until the last week of the semester.
- Survey to examine the outcomes of the eTextbook project was therefore not distributed until late in the semester (during the examination week). This might have affected the low rate of responses received and therefore the results are indicative but not conclusive.
- Neither instructors nor the Library has fully explored the analytics that Skyepack makes available via a Dashboard. This tool allows instructors to view students’ interactions with course material either by student view or overall analytics of the class average. Had this data been used, we could have recognised earlier that not all the students were using their eTextbooks. Only 188 out of 285 enrolled students were actively using their book throughout the semester. The problem could have been addressed early in the semester if UQ had known of students’ initial content access problems due to using the wrong email address, which may have discouraged their use of the eTextbook. According to Lynch and Kalb (2014), the Dashboard also allows students to direct questions about the materials to their instructors and receive replies in real time, and in immediate context. This feature has not been explored by the project team or instructors either.
Of interest are some other analytics that Skyepack provided us with on how students were using their eTextboks:
- Longest total time by 1 student using content is 15 hours 59 minutes (total time across the term, not a single “sitting”)
- The longest time spent on one page: 2.0-2.5 hours by individual students on the following pages:
- Louse Interactive Key
- Diagnostic Parasitology (Links to Interactive Presentations)
- Fly Interactive Key
- Mite Interactive Key
- Distinctive spikes of using the book:
- Usage in initial 2 weeks of class was 2.4x “average” weekly usage.
- Usages during 2 weeks surrounding exam was 3.7x “average” weekly usage.
- When exams are over students are still using the book:
- 17 unique students have accessed the content after June 26, 2016
- 15 of these 17 have accessed on multiple days since June 26, 2016
- Most recent student access was 24 July 2016 (data recorded 25 July, 2016)
Access to these analytics could have helped the lecturers during the pilot project to better understand and improve students’ engagement with content. However, we have not used this Skyepack tool which is designed to assist in solving problems, predicting problems or in making decisions.
Lessons learnt by the Library
This project was short and intense, and at its most basic met the deadlines and provided students with an interactive learning resource which they used throughout the semester. Analytics revealed that the eTextbook was also used for exam preparation, and even when the exams were over (which may have been either for deferred and/or supplementary exam purposes) but also could have been used for recapping the learnt material for some.
As facilitators of the project, the Library learnt that it was possible to work with Skyepack remotely using virtual data exchange and freely available communication tools. Soliciting strategic funding highlighted the project at a very senior level and the Library is keen to explore further possibilities to contribute to the higher strategic goals of the University. Whilst library staff helped students with access to their eTexbooks via Skyepack at the beginning of the semester, it became clear that a robust communication plan needed to be in place to ensure rapid resolution of any similar issues. The problem we encountered due to multiple official email accounts used by the students could have been avoided at the start of the semester if it was better communicated to the students what email address they needed to use.
The Library learnt that it was necessary to utilise analytics available via a Skyepack dashboard in order to encourage all the students to use their eTextbooks. Had we had the information that some students had never accessed their textbooks, we could have raised that question and found out reasons why some students were missing out. Furthermore, Skyepack provides centralised technical support with a turnaround time of 24 hours. However, some students might have not realised that the Skyepack support team was ready to assist them with any technical issues. Neither the Library nor the lecturers used the Skyepack analytics until the semester was over. Nonetheless, there is a growing need for learning analytics and we are keen to help lecturers discover this facility in Skyepack during the next pilot in the coming semester 1 of 2017.
Time delays was the most commonly reported reason for dissatisfaction with the eTextbook developed by Skyepack. However, it was hard to track and report this information for the Skyepack developers to analyse what might have been causing the disruption, since students were only complaining and not helping in collecting the data. If we cannot get students to proactively report on the time delays, we should engage a team of librarians into the testing of the eTextbook to document the occurrences, when and where (on what page, picture) the delay happened and approximation on how long it took for the picture to fully load. This information should help Skyepack to analyse the nature of the problem and take action in resolving the issue.
Content and Navigation
Through the questionnaire we have discovered that the table of content for the online version was “too busy” and not intuitively easy to navigate. This has been taken into account and will be optimised for the next semester. The lecturers indicated that the quality of some of the photographs was compromised. This would be another matter for Skyepack and the Library to investigate and improve.
Lessons learnt by Skyepack
There were some lessons learned by the Skyepack team as well, which they agreed to share in this paper. They confirmed it was possible to work with a university ‘downunder’ virtually. The Library was very good at responding to questions and communicating the corrections or other improvements required. It was possible to produce a usable eTextbook in 2.5 months. Moreover, Skyepack developers had to work with challenging content which was highly specialised. Another lesson learnt is that students were not helpful in reporting time delays, which made it hard for them to identify the cause of the problem. Preparing and testing the eTextbook for the next semester we might need to engage a team of librarians to report on the delays so that Skyepack could further investigate and eliminate them. An alternative UQ website solution was not available for the same time period as the Skyepack book which might have significantly scattered the results of the survey (giving unfair advantage to one solution or the other). In addition, since the questionnaire was distributed right before the examination week, we were unable to reach a good response rate and interpret results with confidence.
The results of the student survey in regards to both solutions can be seen from the live-link (at https://uqscholarlypublishing.typeform.com/report/tqLOs4/QOLE).
The sample size of the responses is not statistically significant as we only received 27 responses from the cohort of 285 students, so the facts and corresponding statements below are indicative rather than conclusive:
- 78% of students have never used an interactive textbook before (new experience was provided for students);
- 52% of the respondents have tried both Skyepack and ShireScience;
- 52% would have chosen Skyepack over ShireScience (disclaimer: since ShireScience was only made available in the last week of the semester, this may have affected the result);
- 70% of respondents value that Skyepack provides life-long access to the book
- 4.6 out of 7 would recommend Skyepack to others
- while 56% responded that they would prefer free access to ShireScience, 36% would still be happy to pay AUD15 to have access to Skyepack; notably, 8% would still prefer a paper-based laboratory manual to all the convenience technology offers in alternate solutions.
The open-ended questions, responses to which would not be available via the live-link provided above, contain the comments of students about the things that stood out for them (positive or otherwise) for both solutions offered, with some of the examples as follows:
- The only thing I didn't like about it was that it took a long time to access (open webpage, log on, etc.) - also, the interactive pages took SO long to load!
- Going through the gallery of parasites trying to find a specific parasite was tedious, would have liked a better way to find a specific parasite in the gallery or some of the thumbnails labelled.
- Videos about lab procedure included. interactive key saves us heaps to time trying to work out what the descriptions from the traditional key mean, but it's a bit slow (the only - side).
- Doesn't have a super long lag time compared to Skyepack. Loading was very fast and much simpler to navigate as compared to Skyepack. Would probably use this more than Skyepack.
- Easy interphase, very intuitive, nice figures, still needs to improve their mini iPad version as some of the left-hand side menu appears cut.
- The bookmark on the top and side of the page making searching around easier. It loads quicker than Skyepack, but the windows popped out are too big (and can't be zoomed in) for tablet users.
What Future Holds
Skyepack remains an interesting platform for the Library and the initial trial highlighted a few issues that will be worthwhile investigating further. There are some obvious benefits for students, instructors and the University, as outlined in the supplementary document to this article. It maybe that the platform is better suited for some disciplines and not others. It would be useful to run the pilot project properly with two options offered at the beginning of the semester and running in parallel. The project team should aim to encourage students to participate in the survey in order to collect a significant sample at the end of the course.
Taking these issues into account, a collective decision was reached at the recent meeting between the Library, UQ educational designers and lecturers to repeat the pilot project during semester 1, 2017, provided that the Library and Skyepack work through some problems including the major technical/delay issues prior to the commencement of the new course. The Library staff will be engaged in testing the eTextbook during a pre-pilot stage in order to imitate multiple simultaneous accesses to the content of the book and document when the response time is slow to help Skyepack further investigate and improve the matter.
It will be worthwhile exploring the Skyepack technology for other disciplines or even for the library-created courses to utilise features of the platform to their maximum potential.
In addition, since Skyepack leverages open source content, content faculty members have created, inexpensive content licensed from third parties, and content created by Skyepack’s instructional designers, it will be interesting to try other models. In light of the growing need for the low-cost alternatives to traditional textbooks, the Library would like to try using Skyepack technology to facilitate creation of an eTextbook based on open educational resources. This model is likely to be most relevant for the fundamental courses so it would be interesting to see how Skyepack educational designers could create an eTextbook purely based on the outline of course content provided by instructors.
The eTextbook project proved to be worthwhile and revealed the potential for the Library to continue to assist the teaching faculty with similar projects to enhance students’ learning experience at UQ.
Dr Elena Danilova, Manager, Scholarly Publications, Scholarly Communications and Repository Services, The University of Queensland Library, firstname.lastname@example.org
With a PhD from Monash University, good track record in research, teaching, and experience in the publishing industry, Elena joined The University of Queensland Library in May 2015. Skyepack eTextbook was one of the first big projects that Elena was managing in collaboration with and for the School of Veterinary Science.
Elena’s quick mind is tied to her affable manner, which serves her well in her current role as Manager of Scholarly Publishing. Her team provides targeted services to support faculty, staff and students at all stages of the scholarly communication process to help increase visibility, dissemination and impact of scholarship. A suite of publishing-related services also include advice, training and support in publishing; open access and promotion of publications; and digital publishing initiatives.
Ms Heather Todd, Director, Learning and Research Services, The University of Queensland Library, email@example.com
Heather brings a wealth of knowledge to the role from over 25 years working in academic and research libraries. She has made significant contributions across all library services, including, managing human, financial and physical resources, strategic planning, organisational change, collection development, repository management, information services and project management.
In her role she oversees the development of policy and services in the areas of client services, research evaluation, data management and scholarly publishing.
She is actively involved in the library profession and has been a member of various Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) executive committees. She is currently the Regional Coordinator for the IFLA Asia and Oceania Section and a committee member on the IFLA Health and Biosciences Section.
- Australia. Information and Digital Literacy. 2016. Information and Digital Literacy: A strategic framework for UQ Library 2016-2020, accessed October 10, 2016, https://web.library.uq.edu.au/files/14363/UQL_IDL_StategicFramework.pdf
- Australia. UQ Student Strategy. 2016. The University of Queensland: Student Strategy 2016-2020, White Paper, accessed October 10, 2016, https://student-strategy.uq.edu.au/files/392/Student-Strategy_White-Paper.pdf
- Lynch, Jennifer, and Brady Kalb. 2014. Creating Affordable Digital Textbooks Through Collaboration: A Case Study from Purdue, accessed October 10, 2016, https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/ubiquity-partner-network/backcontent/jlsc/lpf.1011.pdf