New app lets users build interactive, multimedia e-books

October 12, 2011

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A new, free publishing platform that allows users to add videos, images, interactive content and links to other software, has been developed by Purdue University.

JetPack, a mobile app that creates mobile app/e-book hybrids which can replace classroom textbooks or course packs, has been released by Purdue University. The version currently in the Apple iTunes App Store is the JetPack reader for the iPhone. iPad and Android versions of the app are expected to be released in early 2012, and an authoring tool that will allow instructors to create their own JetPacks will be released in the summer of 2012. (Purdue University image)

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JetPack, a free app on the Apple iTunes App Store, will allow authors to include video, specialized calculators, interactive media, Google maps, interactive quizzes and self-assesment tests together with standard e-book text in creating e-books that can be viewed on mobile devices.

The JetPack publishing platform allows users to create interactive mobile app and e-book hybrids called "packs." Each pack is designed to cover a course topic or section. This may represent material that a faculty member would cover in a month, a week or a single lecture. Instructors can share or assemble packs to build the equivalent of a course textbook.

The packs can be run on most popular devices, and because the content is stored on the users' phones, it runs natively and doesn't have delays caused by downloads.

A JetPack reader with demonstration content is now available on the Apple iTunes App Store for iPhones. In the spring semester of 2012, Purdue will conduct a pilot test of the JetPack software in a few classes as well as release iPad and Android versions of the reader software.

Authoring software, which will allow users to build their own JetPacks will be available in the summer of 2012, says Kyle Bowen, director of informatics for Information Technology at Purdue.

"We'll learn from the pilot test that will begin in a few weeks, and I'm sure there will be many improvements by the time we get to the full public release next summer," Bowen says.

Gerry McCartney, chief information officer, vice president for Information Technology at Purdue and the Olga Oesterle England Professor of Information Technology, says JetPack is a significant step forward for e-textbooks and e-books.

"Almost every student on campus walks into class with a smartphone, or at least a laptop," McCartney says. "Just a few years ago that would have been considered an almost unimaginable amount of computing power to give every student. And from an educational point of view, we've done very little to take advantage of that. JetPack extends what e-books are capable of by making use of that technology."

Bowen says JetPack allows users to simply upload content without worrying about putting it into a specific format or learning to code.

"It's as simple to do as putting content on a blog such as WordPress," Bowen says. "At a basic level, if you want to just add images or video to the text, you can easily do that. On the other hand, if you are more advanced and you want to add interactive content, you can add a wide range of interactivity with HTML5. You don't have to worry about what formats work on different devices. That's all done for you."

Content that can be used to supplement the e-book text in JetPack includes:

* Photographs
* Graphs
* Video
* Documents
* Interactive media
* Specialized calculators
* Interactive self-assessments or games
* Quizzes
* Links to online resources such as Wolfram Apha or Google

"In later releases authors will be able to add data feeds from social media sites or other websites, which are known as APIs, so the material is automatically updated," Bowen says. "This could be news articles from the past month on a particular topic, for example, so that whenever the person reads that chapter, or pack, there is also a discussion of current events that is kept up-to-date."

A reader's packs are stored on each user's mobile device and can also be reached via a website.

"Because the packs are stored on the readers' phones, they don't have to worry about eating through their data plan," Bowen says. "It also means they can view the material anywhere, so they don't have to have wifi or even 3G service in order to study. Any notes or comments the readers add to their JetPack are synched across their devices when they do connect to the Internet."

The initial release of JetPack includes a few sample packs, including a pack on one-time Purdue staff member Amelia Earhart, two textbook samples and a volume of an academic journal.

Rebecca Packer, assistant professor of neurology and neurosurgery in the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine, is preparing a JetPack textbook to use in her classes.

"So much of what we teach in neurology is visual concepts, and this becomes a big hurdle for instruction," Dr. Packer says. "In neurology classes we discuss abnormal movements or reflexes, and we discuss functional pathways or map out how nerve impulses travel during neurological examinations on our veterinary patients. You can only grasp so much of this from text."

Dr. Packer is putting video examples and an MRI image series into JetPack as an animated sequence, which she says replicates the clinical experience better than a single clinical photograph from a traditional textbook.

"For more advanced lectures where MRI images are shown, we use a series of about 20 or 30 images in succession, and not just a single image," Dr. Packer says. "So having an animated MRI play as if in a movie sequence better mimics the actual viewing of MRI results.

"JetPack allows all of these topics and information to be presented in a more natural and more complete manner because the additional content is interspersed with the appropriate text. Having the additional content in the text provides active instruction in a way that wasn't possible before."

For Purdue's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology, JetPack is playing a central role in a broader effort to revise how their subject is taught.

Professor Mike Jacob says that, at the freshman level, the discipline has traditionally been taught from the bottom up, beginning with electrons moving through wires and building up to complete electrical systems.

"Today's students come in already understanding systems," Jacob says. "At home they build complex gaming systems, and they use mobile devices that operate on wireless networks they probably set up. They have a fairly sophisticated understanding of systems when they arrive here, so we're going to begin teaching using these systems as examples and work our way back down to the electron level. But there are no textbooks that take this approach, and it would take years to wait for one to be written and published."

As Jacob and his colleagues revamp the curriculum, he is re-releasing a textbook he wrote as a JetPack series to be used in the spring 2012 semester for a junior-level course on process controls.

"This is a very niche book that we need for this course, but it isn't in a market that is big enough to attract interest from publishers," Jacob says. "My former publisher returned the rights to me, and we are republishing it as a JetPack that will include videos of my previous lectures on this topic."

In addition to videos, Jacob plans to include problems that can only be solved with the commonly used software calculation packages, which can be accessed from within the pack.

"This opens up many opportunities for us. I can include a problem in the text, the students can call up the calculator and work the problem, and later I can see they solved it correctly. I can be right there instructing them while they are on their phone as they wait for the bus, explaining the day's lesson to them for a second time."

In addition to textbooks, Purdue University Press will be using JetPack to distribute its newest academic journal, the Journal of Purdue Undergraduate Research, known as J-PUR. The JPUR JetPack will include each edition's articles enhanced with additional content.

Charles Watkinson, director of Purdue University Press, says JetPack lowers barriers to publishing because authors can self-publish at no cost.

"JetPack levels the playing field for faculty and staff wishing to create interactive publications and a more immersive learning experience for students," Watkinson says. "It will be a valuable addition to our publishing toolkit."

Authors of the packs have access to analytic data about how many people are reading the packs or how well the readers did on the the quizzes or self-assessment tools. This allows the author to see how well readers are understanding the material and what changes may need to be made to future editions of the pack.

JetPack will be licensed to higher education instutions and research institutes for use by their faculty or researchers.

More information can be found at or at The Studio website includes a link to subscribe to a newsletter that contains JetPack updates.

Writer:  Steve Tally, 765-494-9809, (Twitter: sciencewriter)

Sources: Gerry McCartney, 765-496-2270,
                   Kyle Bowen, 765-496-7486, (Twitter: kyledbowen)
                   Rebecca Packer, 765-494-1107,
                   Michael Jacob, 765-494-7490,
                   Charles Watkinson, 765-494-8251, 

Related websites:
Michael Jacob
Software Remote

Related video:  

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