At Penn State, robots begin writing the textbooks

Educators at Pennsylvania State University are getting some help writing textbooks these days.
From robots.

Don’t laugh.

The venture saved students in faculty member Bart Pursel’s Information, People and Technology class $16,000.

Pursel used the new technology, BBookX, to build a textbook, and he distributed it to students for free, the university said in a press release.

“Penn State develops new technology to create robot-written textbooks,” so touts the news release. “The system is helping to usher in a new genre of media: the bionic book.”

It works like this: Faculty use the new technology to build textbooks from open resources on the Web. Faculty give the robots a little help by typing in topics and keywords. Professors create digital table of contents and assign keywords or phrases to each chapter.

“Using matching algorithms, BBookX then returns text within moments, and users can keep the chapters as they are or mix with content of their own,” the university explained.

The new technology has the potential to save students money - like it did for students in Pursel’s class — and that was certainly part of the motivation, Kyle Bowen, Penn State’s director of education technology services, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

The university also wanted to find a way to provide a textbook that can be changed and updated regularly, he said.

The technology can be used in any subject but probably is most appealing in fields that change rapidly, like technology, he said.

Bowen acknowledged that professors will have to review the textbooks that the robots provide, and over time, the tool will apply choices made by the professors to create a better book, similar to how Netflix keys in on what movies a person may like based on what he or she previously watched.

“The more you make those choices, the more intelligent it gets about topics you’re trying to teach,” he said.
But just how many traditional textbooks will it displace at Penn State?

Could be a fair number, Bowen said.

“That’s part of our future exploration,” he said.

The university launched the technology as a pilot and now plans to expand it to other professors and students at the university, Bowen said.

In some cases, students may be encouraged to build their own textbooks, he said.

“I’m very fond of this idea that the person who learns the most from the textbook is the person who writes it,” Bowen said.

Pursel said the new technology was ideal for his course.

“BBookX fit in really nicely with the course - we have to cover a lot, and it was helpful to know the textbook had updated info on everything I planned to teach,” he said in the news release.

He learned something in the process, too.

“While building my textbook, I came across subjects and topics I hadn't known about before," said Pursel. "I was able to learn something new and then pass that along to my students."

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