Case Study – Universities Cut Their Teeth on DVD

With the advent of personal digital assistants, cellular telephones with wireless Internet access, and other digital delivery systems, electronic books have taken a giant leap into the mainstream. Even well-known writers like Stephen King are pioneering new media publishing by sidestepping the traditional publishing model and distributing their latest novels on the Internet.

Lagging at the back of the pack are academic textbook publishers, that have been hesitant to tamper with an age-old process, and the universities that keep them in business. While some publishers have been producing companion CD-ROMs with their textbooks since the mid-1990s, few have been willing to abandon print entirely. Even fewer universities have been willing to expend the time and money necessary to make their curricula digital.

Since the late 1980s, one technology has been integral to the modernization of the learning process. Conceived by Dr. Todd Watkins, a 1990 graduate of the dental program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the technology digitizes academic content for computer delivery through a process of content syndication, digitization, and XML markup. The result: a comprehensive, copyright-compliant, digital resource of a university’s entire academic curriculum.

The technology itself began as a research project while Watkins was attending dental school. “My goal was to make computers better digital references,” says Watkins, who in 1986 began developing a prototype that would later become the cornerstone of Vital Source Technologies (VSTi), the Raleigh, North Carolina-based company he founded in 1994. Since then, Watkins and his team of developers have refined the technology using the input of student focus groups, ultimately building an SGML-based (later XML) browser that could be used to search data. Today, Watkins is at the forefront of a DVD-ROM publishing schema that he believes will eliminate print and distribution costs for textbook publishers and copyright violations on college campuses. The system also assures faculty that all students have access to the same materials, and allows students to have constant access to all of the resources they will need throughout their academic program.

Vital Source Technologies’ product, the VitalBook, is a custom-made DVD-ROM containing up to 160 health science textbooks, course notes, syllabi, and slides in a completely searchable, desktop-accessible archive. Using VSTi’s VitalViewer XML browser, students and faculty may search and access content from any course in a university’s program and bookmark it for future reference. An added bonus is that students are also relieved of the burden of buying, not to mention lug- ging around campus each semester, massive textbooks, since the entire curriculum is available on a single DVD-ROM.

Each textbook is digitized as an individual file, working as an individual book or in conjunction with all of the other books in the curriculum. “We don’t believe in chunking material, mainly because medical texts are written by experts in the field and we don’t want to take them out of context,” Watkins explains. “Everything is linked by its own SGML or XML structure, and the search engine and table of contents are built so the user can drill to the nth degree.”

Indeed, Watkins says, digitizing content is profoundly changing the way college students learn. “The primary advantage is that a university’s entire curricula is in one place, with one interface and one search engine,” he says. Likewise, the VitalBook allows students to be self-directed, cross-referencing texts and course notes at their discretion. VitalBook also eliminates copyright violations by faculty and students (who often resort to copying unavailable or expensive materials), since all textbook material is licensed through agreements with publishers.

Another significant advantage is cost. VitalBook provides a lot more content for a lot less, Watkins says. Students pay $1,500 per academic year to access the VitalBook, which is updated every semester and includes not only required texts but the often costly, hard-to-find supplemental materials that students may not otherwise purchase or use. Participating schools  require students to purchase a DVD-enabled laptop when they first enroll, then trade out old discs for new ones as material is updated or added.

If students want traditional textbooks, they can still get them, though so far, most students are adapting to the new requirements with relative ease. “In a class of 100 students, there will be six or seven students who have been very successful using the traditional paper method and become disenfranchised by this style of learning,” Watkins says. “Another ten or so think it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever seen. The remaining 80 simply adapt as quickly as they can.”

So far, six national dental schools have signed contracts to convert their curricula to customized VitalBooks. The School of Dental Medicine at the University of Buffalo in New York and the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio began full implementations of the VitalBook system in the fall 2000 semester. The College of Dentistry at New York University and the Goldman School of Dental Medicine at Boston University began beta implementations of the program as well. The two remaining participants—the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the University of Florida at Gainesville— will launch the programs with their freshman classes this fall.

Though the program is still new to students and faculty at the schools that have launched full implementations, it is already generating a new passion for learning among both parties, says Dr. Birgit Junfin Glass, associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Texas Health Science Center. “This is not an experiment. Computers are here to stay,” she says. “Our mission as a dental school is to produce competent dentists who feel as comfortable using a computer as they feel using a handpiece to cut a tooth. What’s more, making our entire curriculum computer-based gives the faculty teaching opportunities we never had before.”

The College of Dentistry at New York University has not yet required the VitalBook for incoming freshmen. However, faculty who have been training to use it for implementation in fall 2001 “have been impressed with its simplicity, ease of use, and inherent ability to conduct broad searches across the curricula,” says Dr. Frederick More, professor and associate dean for academic affairs. “We believe that one of the major learning tasks facing dental educators is teaching students how to access and evaluate information. The VitalBook provides faculty the chance to utilize different strategies to promote skills in this area,” he says.

“Additionally,” says More, “it promotes active learning, challenging students to discover knowledge rather than passively absorb it in a lecture hall. Building a spirit of inquiry from the very beginning of the curriculum is a fundamental part of education.” More also thinks that the system will contribute to creating dentists capable of managing advances in the science and technology of the profession.

“In dental education, there are many clinical cases that students should be learning,” Glass agrees. “By having a slide of a clinical photograph or a radiograph constantly available to students, rather than up on the screen for a few minutes in a lecture hall, faculty can walk students through each process. We can use 3D animations and video clips to show students how to do a procedure. Then they can go back on their own and revisit the procedure until it becomes second nature to them.”

Of course, like many DVD applications in use today, VitalBook was not originally conceived for DVD. “Our technology is actually a very good thin client for the Internet,” Watkins explains. “The problem is that students don’t want to access content that way. They don’t want it to be tethered to networks, but completely portable. Consequently, we had to be able to put the content on a disc or into a container that was big enough to hold a university’s entire curriculum,” he says. Considering that the average VitalBook contains approximately 650,000 slides and image files, as well as 650,000 pages of content, it’s easy to see why DVD would be appealing.

“DVD as a media option has gone through several iterative steps,” Watkins says. “It won’t always be our delivery media of choice, but for now, it’s the best solution available. In fact, if it hadn’t been for DVD technology, we’d be really hard-pressed to give students what they need from a storage standpoint.”

Until “the next ROM media of the day comes along,” Watkins continues, VSTi will stick with DVD. The company also plans to expand its academic coverage, and is currently conducting focus group testing in digitized law, engineering, and nursing curricula. Whether these schools will be willing to open their minds (and wallets) and make the $100,000-$500,000 investment remains to be seen.

(Vital Source Technologies, 133 Fayetteville Street Mall, Suite 600, Raleigh, NC 27601; 919/755-8105; Fax 919/755-8050;

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