Conference Buzz: Re-inventing Content, Discovery, and Delivery for Today’s Academic Environment

Written for Unlimited Priorities and DCLnews Blog.

NFAIS 2011

Expectations of today’s academic information users have changed as technology has advanced and new technologies have appeared, so many information providers have re-invented their content accordingly. The processes of accessing and delivering information are considerably different than they were even a few years ago. This NFAIS symposium on May 25, 2011 in Philadelphia, PA examined some of the trends and issues that content providers have faced and the changes they have made to their products to accommodate today’s digital and multimedia technologies. The symposium had sessions on re-inventing content from traditional sources, effects of eBooks and eTextbooks on the learning process, and discovery and delivery platforms. It closed with a fascinating systems analysis look at book publishing.

Integration of Video

One of today’s major trends is the integration of video into all types of content. With the appearance of video hosting sites like YouTube, students have come to expect video content to play a prominent part in their education. In response to this demand, Alexander Street Press (ASP) modified its business strategy in order to concentrate on video-enhanced products. Stephen Rhind-Tutt, president of ASP, reported that the company has translated over 20,000 CD-ROMs into streaming media and has also developed a system to transcribe video into text and synchronize the text with the video images, thus allowing users to quickly and easily scan through the text and view only the portions of the video of interest to them. Other examples of video initiatives by publishers include the American Chemical Society, which developed a very successful video course, “Publishing Your Research 101” that was viewed over 24,000 times in one week and Pearson, a leading educational publisher, which is adding video and podcasts to its eBook products.

Re-Invention of Content From Traditional Sources

The Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals (RIPM) is one of the few content providers dealing with very old content—in this case, music periodicals from the 1800s up to about 1950. Because of the age of the source material, RIPM has several unique problems not generally faced by today’s information companies, such as the poor condition of the pages, handwritten notes on them, etc. RIPM has overcome these problems, producing a database of over 1.2 million pages that has become a major tool for teaching music. The user interface offers several advanced features, such as spelling suggestions, and even the ability to reconfigure one’s keyboard to accommodate non-Roman character sets.

Search vs. Discovery

Search, long a feature of information systems, has several well-known problems, as Bruce Kiesel, Director of Knowledge Base Management at Thomson Reuters, pointed out. It works best when you know what you are looking for, but it only retrieves documents. It cannot find answers to questions, knowledge, new information, or information spread across multiple documents. Discovery systems are making content increasingly intelligent, and they allow users to find unknown information by serendipity, create document maps, and find entities, concepts, relationships, or opinions. Semantic content enrichment can annotate knowledge, link to similar documents, and use metadata as a springboard to other documents, thus enabling information visualization and more proactive delivery. Thomson has greatly enhanced some of its databases using these techniques.

Re-inventing the Learning Experience

A new generation of electronic book products is changing the learning experience. It is no longer sufficient to simply repurpose printed books into a series of PDF documents. Pearson is using Flash technology in its eBooks, and Wiley has redesigned its WileyPlus product, organizing it by time instead of subject so that students can easily determine where they are in a course and can budget their time effectively. It also includes an “early warning system” that uses time and learning objectives to help students find their weak areas and study more effectively. M&C Life Sciences has overcome some of the well known problems of publication delays by selling its content as 50 to 100 page eBooks that include animations and video. Because of their small size and rapid publication schedules, these eBooks can be updated quickly and easily as necessary.

What is a Book?

Eric Hellman, founder of Gluejar, closed the day with a fascinating look at the future of book publishing from a systems analysis viewpoint, examining questions such as:

  • Is the future of publishing related to paper and ink, or bits?
  • Will we be working with documents or objects (like software)?
  • What are the objects in our environment and what are the relationships between them?
  • What will users do with the objects?

Systems analysis involves objects and the actions taken on them. In the publishing world, objects are textual data, articles, or photos, and the actions are navigation, sharing, and searching. Hellman compared a newspaper website such as the New York Times and a general news website such as CNN. The analysis shows that both sites have similar objects and actions (with the exception that CNN emphasizes videos), so they are very much alike. In contrast, single articles and videos are not as similar. An article has text, metadata, photos, and some context and can stand on its own; actions on it include searching and scanning through it. A video is usually focused on a single object with only some context; actions on it include play, pause, change the volume, etc. Applying this analysis to eBooks, Hellman suggested that an eBook is more like a video than an article, although some of them work well as websites. He went on to assert that selling objects has many advantages; the best model is to aggregate them and sell subscriptions because is a good fit with existing book businesses.

More details on this useful and interesting symposium are available on The Conference Circuit blog, and presenters’ slides have been posted on the NFAIS website.

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