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“I-Write”: Illinois Rhetoric Program’s High Quality, Low Cost Text

Jan 16, 2019, 14:03 PM

The Rhetoric Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the latest example of an Illinois program taking advantage of the eText services offered by CITL. The program offers both a print and digital version of its customized, in-house I-Write text.

Nearly two-thirds of college students forgo buying required texts at some point in their college career because they can’t afford them.  Why? Because the average cost of college textbooks has risen four times faster than the rate of inflation over the past 10 years, resulting in a national average of $153 per student, per course.  For large enrollment courses like Rhetoric 105 (over 3,500 students each year), an alternative to a costly textbook could save students tens of thousands each year.  Kristi McDuffie, Interim Director of Rhetoric, Department of English, felt strongly that she and her colleagues could develop and write a good, locally-focused Rhetoric text that was significantly less costly than one of the many offered by traditional publishers.  “More and more schools are looking at creating their own textbooks,” says McDuffie. “So, we figured rather than trying to retrofit someone else’s text into our program, why not write our own materials directly to our program’s learning outcomes? And instead of students paying someone else, they can actually support our program. And that’s exactly what we did.”

I-Write, launched in fall 2018 and written by McDuffie and her Rhetoric colleagues, is available through the University of Illinois WebStore for $26.29.  For that price, each student receives both print and digital versions of the eight-chapter book. The digital version was created in partnership with the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning (CITL), which has offered 55 eTexts over the last eight years, serving over 32,000 students.  This fall semester, use of eText has grown to over 7,200 students.  CITL’s eText program, created by eLearning Professionals Yury Borukhovich and Milind Basole and others, creates electronic texts that are highly compatible with any modern Internet-enabled device.  The decision to have both print and digital versions came about because the instructors involved saw the need for both, McDuffie says.  The University of Illinois, with a history of accessibility innovation (from curb cuts to wheelchair basketball), influenced Borukhovich and Basole to design eText as one of the most accessible reading platforms in the country.  “Students that have special needs, when they use a regular text from a publisher, sometimes do not get access to their manually converted book until Week 3 of the course, if not later, which is really terrible,” says Borukhovich. “With eText, it’s available Day 1.”

I-Write: Digitized and Customized

Kristi McDuffie is quick to point out there are two all-important issues at play with RHET 105’s I-Write book. One, of course, is the digitization of the book. The other—and just as important—is the customization of I-Write.

McDuffie got an early taste of customizing texts when, as a PhD student at Illinois State University, she was an editor for its in-house writing text book, the Grassroots Writing Research Journal. “I was part of that process. I learned how to do it, and when I became interim director at the beginning of last year I said ‘Look guys, we need our own funds, we need an operating budget.’” Customizing I-Write made sense on many levels.

McDuffie, who wrote or cowrote three of the book’s eight chapters, says keeping a book in-house is labor intensive, but worth it. “There were numerous benefits,” she notes. “We kept the costs low for students; we worked with CITL, Document Services, Technology Services’ WebStore, the Illini Union bookstore and the Office of University Counsel, and we made the digital copy very accessible.”

The Process

McDuffie is a big believer in the advantages of customizing a text.

“With customizing, you have complete control over the creative process,” she says, from content to design to size to cost. “You create exactly the text you want to create.

“You also gain a sense of community,” she adds. In the case of I-Write, numerous instructors and students took part in developing the book, which spurred professional development as well. For instance, I-Write includes exemplary student essays meant to demonstrate excellent writing, competitively chosen by the RHET staff.  This form of collaborative, community authorship enhances a feeling of shared identity and of Illinois pride for students, McDuffie says, because RHET 105 is a core course that freshmen take. That feeling of community and identity can even help to ease the transition for a freshman.

Another advantage for a customized text is the relative ease in revising it. Typically, a print book lives for four or five years (or more), so a publisher can get back the money it invested in the book. Not so with a customized, in-house text.

“Our intent is to do a new version every year,” McDuffie says. “We want a new book every year in part because we just need to update it and we want to show new student writing.” Customizing allows for texts to maintain that fresh, relevant, current look and feel.

“I think it’s beautiful”

“I’m so proud of I-Write,” says McDuffie. “I think it’s beautiful. It has a beautiful design, it looks really professional, and I’m proud of the writing.

“The feedback we’ve gotten so far from both the students and the reception we’ve felt from the University of Illinois has been positive.”

The bottom line is this: The Rhetoric Program has created a high-quality resource available in print and digital forms that meets their program’s needs, saves students money, and makes the book both more accessible and more effective than a traditional eBook or a print-only version.

eText: Making Its Digital Mark

Milind Basole recalls the day in 2010 the seed for eText@Illinois, was planted.

“It was born of need,” says Basole, Senior eLearning Professional at CITL and cofounder of eText along with Yury Borukhovich. “A faculty member came to us and said, ‘I created this book and I am using a mainstream publisher to deliver the content,’ but the professor’s TAs were having difficulty getting all of their students access to the book.

“Published product was really a glorified PDF, not suitable for accommodative devices. So, we set out to create a better system.”

In eight months, the eText team brought the professor’s product online. And not only was a book born; a service was born.

 “It’s a service created at the University of Illinois for the University of Illinois,” Basole says. But as with any exceptional service, the opportunities and the vision widen with time. eText is reaching out to other Big 10 schools to make eText available as Software as a Service (SaaS). “For example, if we have a great ECON 102 textbook, maybe Michigan State can use it. If they have a Psychology 101 book they created from scratch, maybe we can use it. Together, we can make the library grow.”

Robert Baird, Associate Director of Instructional Spaces & Technologies for CITL, believes eText distinguishes Illinois: “Not every school or campus in the country or Big 10 has an eText,” he says. “A lot of campuses use a lot of technology, but most of it is commercially provided and it’s rare for campuses these days to have something they developed. eTexts are relatively rare and this idea that folks on our campus created it and we customized it for our campus is something to be proud of.”


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