Textbooks cost too much? Startup offers alternative

Lauren Williams's picture
Friday, July 19, 2013

A new digital tool offers an alternative to both textbooks and expensive e-readers and allows anyone to create classroom teaching materials that students can view on computers or smartphones.

The tool, Skyepack, just launched as a "freemium" product. Users can create and distribute their initial digital packs - which are a hybrid between an e-book and a mobile application - at no cost. Additional publishing space can be added for a fee.

The Skyepack technology was licensed by Purdue University through an agreement with the Purdue Research Foundation. Purdue has been using its version of the technology, calledJetpack, since 2011. The company is operating out of the Purdue Research Park.

Gerry McCartney, Purdue University's CIO, vice president for information technology and Olga Oesterle England Professor of Technology, says Jetpack and the commercial version, Skyepack, are a new way of delivering educational materials.

"E-books today remind me of how early automobiles were called 'horseless carriages' and looked as if they worked best if you harnessed a couple of horses to the front," McCartney says. "This publishing platform is a next step, because it allows you to incorporate any type of media and view it on almost any device."

Brady Kalb, chief executive officer of Skyepack, says the technology is not just for teachers in classrooms.

"Our market includes instructors and teachers, but also other subject-matter experts who are looking to share their knowledge. It can be used by anyone to package content they have and distribute it in a compact matter," Kalb says. "So Skyepack can not only be used by K-12 educators and university faculty, but also for corporate training, professional continuing educational training, and similar uses."

Texas A&M University is using Skyepack to deliver an online course called "Healthy Lifestyles. Bruce Hanik, associate director of the university's Office of Digital Learning Technologies, says Skyepack allows students to view the content on their mobile devices.

"We use Moodle to deliver the course, but all of our lectures use Adobe Flash, which doesn't play on iPads or iPhones," Hanick says. "This gives students another way to access the material."

Both Skyepack and and the Purdue technology it is built on allow authors to combine video, specialized calculators, interactive media, Google maps, presentation slides, interactive quizzes and self-assessment tests with standard e-book text into lecture-specific "packs." Instructors can assemble multiple packs to build the equivalent of a course textbook.

The packs can be run on most smartphones and tablet devices, smartphones, iPhones, and iPads, and because the content is stored on the users' devices, the packs run natively and don't have delays or skips caused by slow downloads. Users can also view the material online using desktop computers.

Jetpack is one of seven "classroom app" mobile technologies developed at Purdue to assist instructors and benefit students. Although he's pleased with the arrangement to license the technology, McCartney says that isn't the reason the university develops new apps.

"These mobile apps and software tools are built because they improve student success at Purdue," he says. "We want to share our success, but we're not in the business of selling educational technologies. By licensing our technologies to companies such as Skyepack we can make these technologies available to companies and institutions that have a need for them."

Jetpack was developed by professional staff in Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP). Dan Hasler, president and chief entrepreneurial officer of the Purdue Research Foundation, says that this is an example of the innovation that continues to happen throughout Purdue's domain. 

"We have a vibrant environment at Purdue that is encouraging life-changing ideas and exploring their commercial potential," Hasler says. "Skyepack is just the latest example of an idea that was developed by staff members and is now the basis for a new company and new employment in the Research Park."

Purdue University has nearly 500 technologies available for licensing through the Office of Technology Commercialization. For more information, visit http://otc-prf.org or call 765-588-3341.

About Skyepack

Skyepack is a mobile educational content authoring and distribution platform that enables instructors and subject matter experts to easily create media-rich learning materials that are published to mobile devices and the Web. Skyepack enables a "learn-as-you-go" study methodology by not requiring a Wi-Fi or LTE connection to view the material and provides instructors with valuable feedback about student usage and impact.

About Purdue University

Purdue University is a public, doctoral-granting research university founded in 1869. The university's statewide system includes its main campus in West Lafayette, Ind., four regional campuses, and numerous teaching and research sites throughout Indiana. Purdue has a systemwide enrollment of more than 69,000 students from 50 states and 130 countries. Purdue's main campus offers more than 200 majors for undergraduates and more than 70 master's and doctoral programs. The university also has 18 intercollegiate sports teams and more than 850 student organizations. Purdue is led by Mitchell E. Daniels, who serves as the university's 12th president. For more information, please visit http://www.purdue.edu 

About Purdue Research Foundation

The Purdue Research Foundation is a private, nonprofit foundation created to advance the mission of Purdue University. The foundation accepts gifts; administers trusts; funds research, scholarships and grants; acquires property; and negotiates research contracts on behalf of Purdue. In the 1990s, the foundation was charged with helping the university in the realm of economic development. The Purdue Research Foundation oversees the Purdue Research Park, which is the largest university-affiliated business incubator in the country. For more information, please visit http://www.prf.org/