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JetPack serves as textbook alternative in new computer science course

Professor Jennifer Neville was frustrated—after signing up to teach a new class on data mining and machine learning, she began searching for affordable course materials geared toward undergraduates. But that search, to her surprise, was fruitless.

That is, until she discovered JetPack, an application for creating customized course materials students can download directly to their mobile devices. And, to her surprise, JetPack was developed here at Purdue and is available at no cost to faculty.

Developed by ITaP, the JetPack publishing platform lets instructors create interactive mobile applications and e-book hybrids called “packs,” which are designed to cover a course topic or section. In addition to providing a safe digital environment for fair use, JetPack lets instructors share or aggregate open content, such as materials they’ve created or materials for which they’ve obtained the copyright to build the equivalent of a course textbook, as Neville decided to do.

Before learning about JetPack, Neville, assistant professor of computer science and statistics, asked Purdue colleagues and faculty at other universities for advice, only to find that they didn’t know of any solutions. She also explored using an external publishing company to create her own online textbook, but balked at the $100 fee per student for what was little more than scanned photocopies.

“There’s a group of faculty at other institutions who have been talking about collaborating to write a textbook for this new class, but talk is slow, and I had to teach the course this semester,” Neville says. “It’s crucial my students have the class materials at their fingertips because the course covers too much content to be able to walk them through all of it step-by-step. I was complaining to other faculty about the lack of available tools to help me distill or mix and match chapters from different textbooks. I assumed people had solved this problem before, but they hadn’t, so I was very happy when I found out about JetPack.

“Not only is ITaP ahead of the curve in terms of developing this course material tool for students, but they’re also defining what the curve should be.”

JetPack stores readings, videos, audio and important links directly to a mobile device for reference or studying. The packs can be run on most popular devices, such as IOS and Android, as well as laptop and desktop computers. Moreover, because the content is stored on users’ phones, it runs natively and doesn’t have delays caused by downloads. Other features include embedded rich media, HTML5 interactivity and shared comments that are synchronized across devices for easy collaboration.

Kyle Bowen, director of ITaP Informatics, 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.”

While Apple’s new iBook Author software offers similar interactivity features, Bowen says it may not be the best choice for Purdue faculty.

“Apple has built an elegant textbook alternative, but iBook Author creates challenges for faculty at Purdue because many features are limited to iPad,” he says. “JetPack overcomes these obstacles because it can be accessed across multiple platforms, so you don’t have to worry about what formats work on different devices. We’ve also developed a JetPack app for Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which we’ll release in the near future.”

Another benefit to JetPack is that it collects analytic data on how students are using the material, as well as how well students perform on quizzes or self-assessment tools. This will help instructors and Jetpack developers understand what changes need to be made to future versions to streamline and improve performance.

Neville says her students actually cheered this semester when she told them that they’d be using JetPack in lieu of a traditional textbook. She’s also been advertising the tool to others in her department.

“Moving toward this kind of application is going to change things, especially in the computer science department where we try to stay on top of changes in technology,” Neville says. “I love that JetPack lets me distill textbooks to very concise coverage of material that students can read when and where it’s convenient for them. The first step in getting students to acquire knowledge is getting them to engage with the textbook material, and I think JetPack will make it easier for them to test themselves and work through examples.”

More information may be found on the ITaP Studio website or on iTunes. The Studio website includes a link to subscribe to a newsletter that contains JetPack updates.

Authoring is currently available to Purdue faculty, with broader availability planned for this summer. Purdue instructors who would like to participate in the application’s pilot phase or receive more information may contact Bowen.

Writer: Andrea Thomas, ITaP technology writer, 765-496-8204, thomas78@purdue.edu

Sources: Kyle Bowen, 765-496-7486, kbowen@purdue.edu

Jennifer Neville, neville@purdue.edu

Last updated: 1/27/2012