March 2, 2000
Bookbag of the Future
Dental Schools Stuff
4 Years' Worth of Manuals and Books Into 1 DVD
By LISA GUERNSEY
tarting this fall, students at seven dental schools will be spared the
strain of toting heavy textbooks to
and from the library. They won't even
need to go to the bookstore to buy a single
textbook, workbook or laboratory manual.
Instead, each incoming student will be
asked to purchase a DVD containing the
entire curriculum -- textbooks, manuals
and lecture slides -- for all four years of
dental school. Each semester, students
will trade the old DVD for an updated
version. Creators of the technology estimate that the DVD's, each weighing less
than an ounce, will replace more than 2
million pages, thousands of images and
more than 400 pounds of books and manuals.
Jenny Warburg for The New York Times
DIGITIZING BOOKS: Todd Watkins is the founder of Vital Source Technologies, which is putting a four-year dental school curriculum onto a single DVD.
"It essentially provides all of the textbooks, all the course syllabi, all of the
handouts and most of the images that
faculty will be using throughout the entire curriculum from the first day of
class," said Fred Moore, associate dean
for academic affairs at the College of
Dentistry at New York University, which
is participating in the project.
Educators and electronic publishers
have talked for years about the advantages of creating digital replacements
for heavy and often quickly outdated
printed textbooks. But digital textbooks
have been slow to appear, a lag that has
been attributed to everything from technological limitations to publishers' fears
of copyright infringements. Most students still buy printed textbooks, although many books now come with CD-ROM's that provide supplementary material.
The dental schools' use of DVD's is a
sudden leap forward. Experts in textbook publishing say it is the first time
that digital content has completely replaced books for all students in a school.
And it is almost surely the first time that
an institution of higher education has
attempted to put an entire curriculum --
from handouts to manuals -- in one integrated electronic format for all four
years of a degree program.
Still, whether students will embrace an
entirely digitized curriculum is an open
Some digital-textbook experiments have shown that students facing a lot
of reading prefer printed books, said Gary
Shapiro, senior vice president for intellectual property at Follett, a company that manages college bookstores. Follett, for example, has conducted focus groups to test students' reactions to online or CD versions of
textbooks. Based on the company's findings,
Mr. Shapiro said, "It is unlikely that a
student will sit in front of a computer and
read a textbook."
Price is another issue. Because the disks
are designed to include four times as much
material as students are typically asked to
buy, the price for DVD's, or for other digital
vehicles for presenting information -- will
be anything but cheap.
Developers say that a DVD with updates
will cost roughly the same as the total for
the books students are expected to buy now:
$3,000 to $6,000, paid over time. And coordinators of the project acknowledge that students will have no choice but to buy all the
books they might use in four years, instead
of picking and choosing.
Still, Wayne Loney, a third-year dental
student who tested the concept, said he
thought that students would accept the cost.
"You're paying for more convenience,"
said Mr. Loney, a student at the University
of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, where the project originated. "If I had
to leave for the weekend, all I had to do was
just take my Powerbook and fire it up from
wherever I was."
The software's searching capabilities provided an even more important convenience,
Mr. Loney said. "If I was looking for a piece
of information, all I had to do was type it in,
and the software would give me a list of
every place that topic came up."
Even images of microscope slides could
be found with a simple search. "It was like
we had a full-blown histology lab at our
fingertips," he said.
It was the integration of four years' worth
of laboratory slides, textbook entries and
professors' manuals that provided the impetus for adopting the DVD model, administrators and professors say.
"The first year of school is basic science,
and sometimes students fail to see the relevance of that to what they will need to
know," said Pamela Jones, co-director of
the project at the dental school at the University of Buffalo, which announced its participation two weeks ago.
But, Dr. Jones said, once students are able
to search across all four years' worth of
educational material, they will see the connections. A student in an introductory anatomy class, for example, could search the
word "maxilla" and discover how an understanding of the jaw's structure would help in
advanced orthodontics classes.
The other four participants are the dental
schools of Boston University, the University
of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey,
the University of Florida at Gainesville and
the United States Navy Postgraduate Dental School.
Making the leap from
printed to digital
The project was something of a surprise
to observers of the nascent digital-textbook
industry, some of whom expressed admiration for the dental schools' aggressive approach. "It's the kind of experiment that
needs to be done," said Mr. Shapiro, of
Follett. "It will be fascinating to see how the
students react to it."
But some experts said that publishers of
dental textbooks might be better situated
than other textbook makers for a transition
from print to digital. Because there are
fewer than 10 publishers of dental textbooks,
it may be easier for dental schools and
software makers to agree on how to create
digital textbooks, industry experts say.
And the ease of searching digital information may be more appealing to dental students, who often use their textbooks as
references to be read in short chunks instead of as continuous text, chapter by chapter.
The structure of dental education also
helps, administrators say. Within a school,
dental students take virtually the same
classes, are taught from the same books and
are asked to read the same manuals and
handouts. Each dental school will choose the
books, handouts and slides that will appear
on the DVD developed for that school.
In addition to the curriculum DVD, students will have to buy a laptop with a DVD
player. Most students, administrators say,
will add the cost of the computers and the
DVD's to their requests for financial aid.
Part of the dental schools' strategy in
making these purchases mandatory is to
ensure that the computers and disks qualify
for federal education loans, which cover
only required materials.
To further help with the costs of the
laptops, the schools are talking with computer manufacturers to come up with four-year leasing programs.
Meanwhile, a company called Vital
Source Technologies has been digitizing
hundreds of textbooks, manuals and professors' handouts to be included in the DVD's.
The company, which is based in Raleigh,
N.C., has also been negotiating with publishers on behalf of universities to license the
books in electronic form. (It will not disclose
the publishers' names until a formal announcement is made on April 1, but representatives at the universities have said that
most major dental textbook publishers are
The company's main contribution, however, is its technology. Todd Watkins, the
founder of Vital Source, has developed software that will enable students to do several
things with the same set of digitized materials. During an interview in his office this
week, he demonstrated how it worked:
Clicking on a title opens a window showcasing a book's cover. By clicking on each
page, students can turn pages as if they
were reading a printed book. Students will
also be able to search for specific words as
they appear in the table of contents of one
book, the full text of one book or the full text
of all books and images that are included on
the DVD. They will also be able to create
online bookshelves containing anything they
wish to link together, like chapters from
several books that are related to the same
Dr. Watkins, who has a degree in dentistry, said his training brought him much
closer to understanding students' needs. He
came up with the idea for a fully searchable
electronic curriculum almost 10 years ago,
when he was a new faculty member at the
University of Texas Health Science Center
in San Antonio, where he also conducted
research on how information technology
could be used in education.
Health-science textbooks seemed ideal
for digitizing, Dr. Watkins said, because
they are so expensive to print. Many textbooks, for example, present diagrams in
black-and-white, a process that costs less
than color. But in digital textbooks, color
can be used liberally with no added cost. Dr.
Watkins said publishers had already begun
sending him color versions of diagrams for
the DVD's to replace the black-and-white
diagrams in printed textbooks.
In 1995, Dr. Watkins started to test versions of his software with groups of students
at the university. A few years later, he
asked William Chesser, a childhood friend
with a background in education issues, to
help him design more substantial trials. Mr.
Chesser is now the company's vice president.
Kenneth Kalkwarf, the dean at the Texas
dental school, also got involved, urging Dr.
Watkins and Mr. Chesser to experiment
with digital content in all the courses, instead of focusing on one textbook for one
Dr. Kalkwarf soon put together the
"It is the universities that are demanding
this," Dr. Watkins said. "We were never a
technology in search of a market. We are
essentially trying to solve problems with
The rise of digital textbooks, electronic
publishers say, may also halt a nontechnological trend that has worried many
schools: Students, it turns out, are not always buying the books that professors assign. Although national data about students'
book-purchasing habits have not been collected recently, some industry experts estimate that as many as 50 percent of students
in some fields are either buying used editions or none at all. In dental schools, the
trend may be even more pronounced.
Source found that in some classes, only 10
percent of dental students bought the books
a professor listed on a syllabus.
"Textbooks are so expensive," Dr. Watkins said; they cost $100 to $200 on average.
"Students are basically having to decide
whether to buy a book or pay the rent," Dr.
Watkins added. From what he has seen, he
said, students get by with a hodgepodge of
materials based on chapters photocopied
from textbooks in the library, paperback
workbooks and handouts from professors.
By asking students to buy a DVD containing all the assigned books, school administrators say, they are hoping to make the
content more accessible -- even if it means
that students have to pay for more material
than some of them expected.
"We're making sure that we are putting
into the hands of our students all the materials that they are expected to have," said Dr.
Jones, at Buffalo's dental school. "This way
we are getting around the problem of students' not buying textbooks."
And publishers are starting to embrace
the idea of digital books for exactly that
reason. Their logic goes like this: If the
books are searchable, if they can be updated
with a few clicks and an online connection,
and if they can be as weightless as digital
bits, students might actually spend money
on them instead of bypassing the cash register in favor of the photocopy machine.
McGraw-Hill, a publisher that is responsible for a few thousand textbooks, has started packaging CD-ROM's with textbooks to
give students enhanced versions of the
printed material. The main point of the CD-ROM's, which include animation and video,
is to "help students learn more quickly,"
said Henry Hirschberg, McGraw-Hill's
group president for higher-education, professional and international publishing.
But the enhancements are also part of the
company's strategy to stay competitive and
sell more books.
Electronic books, for example, can be revised much more often and
more cheaply than their printed versions,
and professors may be more inclined to
encourage students to buy new CD-based
editions instead of relying on used but still
To make the electronic versions of its
textbooks, McGraw-Hill has hired
Versaware, an electronic-book publisher
that is working with nearly 100 traditional
publishers to digitize their books. By the
beginning of the next school year, 30 to 50
popular college-level textbooks will be available on CD or through the Web, said Julie
Greenblatt, Versaware's vice president for
The company is also creating online
spaces where students can create electronic
libraries stocked with books they have
bought and downloaded. (Some examples
can be found on Ebookcity.com.)
"The technology absolutely supports" the
kind of integration the dental schools have
adopted, Ms. Greenblatt said. Logistics and
politics are now the only barriers to having
searchable digital content available
throughout high schools and colleges. For
example, some publishers are still leery of
having their content integrated with materials from competitors, she said.
But Ms. Greenblatt said those hurdles
could be overcome, especially considering
the current drive to embrace distance learning.
By 2002, she said, nearly 80 percent of
universities are expected to have some kind
of online courses. Digital textbooks, she
said, go hand in hand with that trend.
"In the next five years," she predicted,
"you will have pervasive electronic content."
For now, professors and administrators
in the seven dental schools are eager to see
how the DVD's will change the way members of next year's class absorb and understand what they have been taught.
"Students will be taught more concepts
and be given more strategies to access
much broader sources of information," said
Dr. Moore, of N.Y.U. "This changes the
whole paradigm for learning."