Introducing TECbook: Our approach to creating an eBook platform for education

by Ian Grainger
by Ian Grainger

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Our primary intention when designing TECbook was for it to be easy to use for both teaching and learning. For us, ease-of-use is crucial. If you present someone with a complex product that has far too many features and options, it can be quite daunting. We wanted to make sure getting a student started didn’t require an I.T. department to intervene, or students to pre-register in any way. It needed to fit in with familiar classroom situations and not add any unnecessary steps. When thirty students walk into a class, how long is it before they’re online looking at a book? With TECbook and their allocated classroom copies, students only need to put in the activation code supplied by the teacher and they’re online straight away.

With TECbook, we wanted to include a note-taking tool that kept up with the general flow of a lesson. Most, if not all, eBooks have some form of note-taking tool which forces the user to write unappealing post-it notes. Having to click on these notes and write small notes and place them it in the book is cumbersome and time-consuming. TECbook’s notebooks display alongside the textbook. Under our system, the page you’re viewing takes up the left-side of the screen and your notebook, when opened up, is sat opposite on the right. It’s a much more efficient way of performing an important task in class.tb1
Getting TECbooks to work functionally across multiple devices was actually less challenging than making everything several different browser versions. With all the ‘mobile first’ frameworks and development processes, we were able to get it up and running on desktop, iPad and iPhone with relative ease. Getting it to work on Internet Explorer was more of a challenge; there are animations and text editor issues that we really had trouble with on some older versions of IE.

Making sure people couldn’t steal a book’s contents was something we took very seriously. From a usability perspective, we wanted copying diagrams and text into notebooks to be easy. However, once a note is left in the notebook, we had to make sure the user couldn’t copy it out of the notebook into something else they could then distribute. To ensure this, we’ve added a security measure which encrypts anything copied from the book. So if someone tries to paste a copied section into a word processor, it will not only block the content from being viewed but also reference the book and page it originates from.

For us, simplicity is key; we would never want the the controls to clutter the screen or intrude with book reading, for instance. With this is mind, I looked to my favourite phone and tablet apps for inspiration – specifically ones which demand a minimum of user interaction whilst still retaining a distinct purpose. Instagram, Pinterest and Paper 53 are good examples of this philosophy. As such, I wanted to group the controls on TECbook into two sections. This works for thumb placement for holding a tablet, but also works perfectly when standing at an interactive whiteboard where a teacher stands just to its side. You can access the controls without needing to readjust the tablet, and you don’t need to walk in front of the board when teaching a class.

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We launched an eBook platform a couple of years ago as part of a very small scale launch. We fell victim to the “put post-it notes everywhere!” ethos that the industry has widely adopted. It looked cluttered and never really worked on an iPad as a result. I then redesigned it from the ground up, so there’s been at least one major version change. As with any tech project, there have been countless iterations of the current TECbook. For instance, we only very recently updated the visuals of flashcard decks.

For the future of TECbook, we’re looking to include a clever glossary which allows a student to click on a word to see its meaning and other example uses and then add that word as a flashcard. We’ve also begun the first initial designs for including an annotation space so students can draw diagrams in their notebook. We essentially observe why students need to leave the TECbook to complete something education related. Right now it’s to lookup a word and draw a diagram. Once we solve these we will have an all-encompassing learning environment. Even without those features we’re still miles ahead of the competition… in my opinion!


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