VitalSource eTextbook Summit, 2013

Along with a few other colleagues, I went along to the VitalSource eTextbook Summit at the Charlotte Street Hotel on 19th March 2014.  This started a little better than the Seraph Science dinner that I went to, at the Haymarket Hotel, where an overly-enthusiastic member of staff opened a door with some force that stopped literally an inch away from the tip of my nose.  The jolly gentleman that he’d opened the door for seemed rather non-plussed that I’d nearly been wiped out.

In any case, the event opened with a talk by William Chesser who is Vice President of Vital Source Technologies.  They’re now celebrating their 20th anniversary, and what they do is offer cloud-based online access to textbooks plus native apps for full download, across Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. Its users are allowed to download each book they have available on their account to up to four devices (which is generous, but sort of in line with the future of computing).

It was a big week for VitalSource of course: they’d literally just acquired CourseSmart, a huge operation that had been purchased by the VitalSource owners Ingram. CourseSmart and VitalSource did much the same job, and perhaps there was not enough room for two in this particular saloon.  Including CourseSmart, this new entity now have over 350 publisher partners, over 10M register users and over 2M faculty accounts. 

Interestingly enough, of their total staff of around 175, over 50 of these people are inhouse engineers.  This is a content delivery company but one that knows it has to absolutely deliver on the technical and analytic side of things.  I’ve recently had some involvement in a Cognos implementation at work and the metrics that Chesser went on to demonstrate were very impressive.  Minute-by-minute breakdowns of access, by platform and O/S, were available.

All told, the average student session on VS is 20 minutes – and in that time, they access around 20 pages.  There’s your coal-face of Western technology-led learning. Some other data regarding new students registering in 2013:

  • 38% use online cloud-based service only
  • 37% download to Windows or Mac PC/laptop
  • 13% only download to mobile/tablet
  • 12% download to Win/Mac AND mobile/tablet.

After the opening presentation, the very interesting summit then had more focussed sessions that looked at individual parts of the HE environment and how companies and technologies like VS were tackling issues and providing solutions.  The second presenter notably played a (contentious, in my view) YouTube video of the Generation now being tagged ‘Digital Natives’.  At the tail end of that Generation, like the tail end of Gen X was composed of 90s indie kids who laughed at the ZX Spectrums of the 80s, are people like this baby: a 1-year-old child who picks up a magazine and clearly thinks it’s just a broken iPad (  The baby tries their stylus finger out on their thigh at one point, too – because something is clearly awry with this paper contraption.

Now that’s something to think about.

Moving Through

We’re moving through.   I finished “Independence Day” by Richard Ford, which is a fine read.  The follow up to “The Sportswriter”, it picks up with Frank Bascombe during his self-styled ‘Existence Period’.  He’s selling real estate in Haddam, New Jersey and it is summer in the early 80s.  His son has stuck a “Lick Bush” bumper sticker on his car.  Ford has these mesmerizing, long, laden sentences that are a treat just for their own sake.  Allied to the bigger meaning (although he can be guilty of overreaching) it is a pretty thrilling experience.  I’d recommend it.  You can pick it up from Bloomsbury (caveat: my employers) here.  I’m starting “Generation X” (Abacus) which is probably still Douglas Coupland’s most famous book.  It has dated to some extent, but its clear to see why it had such a big influence.  Coupland’s tropes are on clearly on display (you could run Gen X into Microserfs and at points not really know the difference in style or character) but perhaps that’s no bad thing.  The anger in the book is more poignant and relevant than ever.  The situation has gotten worse, not better.  Human beings are not really very good at thinking about the intangibles, the future, their children’s children (unless it’s as a doting grandparent in which case it’s fine and that’s brilliant).  The bigger betrayal is unrealistically low taxation, investment and an economy geared entirely around conspicuous consumption and housing bubbles.  Yes, you’re a clever swine and your 3 bed house is now worth a million but you just didn’t earn it, baby.  You merely got old.  And now you want to tell me how to live.

Music-wise, the new(ish) Caveman album is great, as is the new Maximo Park effort.  “Leave This Island” is a great track, worth digging out.  I gave the new Katy B album a listen but it just simply isn’t as good as her debut. Debut albums always hold a special promise, a special energy, 18-20 years of creativity exploding on to the scene.  There’s something magical and restive about the best of them (and something dismal about the worst, and most disappointing, efforts).  I think of “Word Gets Around” (Stereophonics), “The Things We Make” (Six. By Seven) as high points in their entire future careers.  Television’s debut.  Sometimes the first time is the best time (not that often).