New School: A Tumblr for Making Your Own Textbooks

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Can a simple, easy way to build coursepacks catch on with students and professors?

gingkotree.jpg

The Hasbroucks, their dog, and a switch built into a koala bear that some guy who now lives in Europe left at their coworking space.

Our first stop in Ann Arbor today was at TechBrewery, a co-working space for start-ups at the western edge of University of Michigan's campus. Housed in an historic building that was a brewery in the late 19th century and a foundry in the 1920s, the place has all the old industrial trappings that make for great collaborative work space -- high ceilings, big windows, steel trusses, and very few walls.

The first company we met was founded by a young married couple (the second techie love match we've encountered on this trip), Lida and Scott Hasbrouck, who sit opposite each other, bisected by two computer monitors, a stuffed koala, and their tiny, pink-sweatered dog. The Hasbroucks are working on a startup called GinkgoTree, which Scott says "will enable professors to divorce textbooks entirely."

Ideas and entrepreneurs from Chicago to Pittsburgh
Check out the whole road trip

Currently, Scott explains, "professors that are really trying to push the edge and combine textbooks with technology are hacking together all these solutions. You see Wordpress blogs for course materials ... and then there's this problem: in order to teach the majority of college courses, you need copyrighted content and textbooks. There's no good way to merge all of the cool stuff, like Khan Academy, and all this other stuff together into one solution."

Despite the dominance of educational-software giant, Blackboard, the Hasbroucks think their product's got a good shot, largely because of its relative simplicity. Ginkgo Tree presents an intuitive, visual interface, not unlike Tumblr's dashboard. For each course and subject, professors can upload links and images, embed video, post comments, and -- significantly -- import a chunk of scanned pages from print books. All of those resources get bundled into modules and arrayed in a navigable grid.

When all is said and done, the use of Ginkgo Tree will cost professors nothing, says Scott, and cost students far less than they would pay for the typical boatload of textbooks -- he estimates between $50-100 total per school term. Through an agreement with Copyright Clearance Center, scanned text costs around $0.15 per page (though it varies by book). So, as Lida points out, even a 100-page excerpt costs a fraction of a textbook's sale price.

Ginkgo Tree is set to launch in two weeks, with the goal of getting a critical mass of professors to adopt the technology for spring semester. "We just want it to be very simple, easy to use, and we're going to start small and build based on user feedback," says Scott, "Basically, it turns making your own textbook into a Tumblr blog."

They're self-funding the startup with the proceeds from 100,000 paying users of their popular notetaking app, Paperdesk.

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Sarah Rich is the editor of Smithsonian's Design Decoded blog, co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project, and a former senior editor at Dwell. Her most recent book, Urban Farms, was published in June 2012. 

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