An Interview with BookWidgets Co-Founder: Niels Vanspauwen
Book widgets have opened the limits of capabilities for interactive ebooks in education and other sectors. During our ongoing exploration with the potential of book widgets, we had the pleasure of interviewing Niels Vanspauwen, co-founder of Belgium-based BookWidgets.com, to hear his perspective of how things are turning out with this technology.
First tell us about yourself
I’m Niels, co-founder at BookWidgets. I’m a software engineer by trade, but I’ve always been interested in education. Marrying a teacher and following my 3 kids as they go through school only strengthened my belief that there is a lot of room for improvement in how we raise and teach our children.
What made you start BookWidgets?
When we noticed how easily our children were able to figure out how to control an iPad, my business partner Xavier and I quickly realized how much impact these devices could have on education. We knew that many teachers are very passionate about their jobs, and are spending a lot of time and effort to create fun and interesting lessons for their pupils. Traditionally, those teachers are using tools like Word and Powerpoint, and printing out hand-outs. Our guess was that in a couple of years, there would be schools where every child would have an iPad at his disposal, and that those traditional tools wouldn’t cut it anymore. It turns out we were right, and teachers need simple tools that let them create interactive lessons for tablets quickly.
Tell us a bit about your customers
We primarily sell to teachers and schools teaching children between 6 and 18, or what you’d call the K-12 market in the US. Most of our teachers create supplemental material, to use alongside traditional textbooks. But more and more, we’re seeing teachers collaborate with their colleagues to write entire textbooks themselves, because they are frustrated by the digital material provided by educational textbook publishers.
We also work with publishers that want to take their textbooks into the digital age, and what to do it better than just converting them to PDF. With BookWidgets, they can turn their huge catalogue of educational material into rich, interactive learning experiences.
Which software programs are compatible with your widgets?
That’s a tricky question. Our widgets are plain HTML5 web apps, so in theory, any program which can embed HTML5 content should work. We have found however that many tools implement HTML5 poorly, or incompletely. We test our widgets in iBooks Author multi-touch books, our own iPad app, and recent versions of every major browser. In addition, we know from you that they also work well in Kotobee, though we currently don’t test new releases of BookWidgets for compatibility with Kotobee. We’ve heard from customers that they use our widgets without problems in a few other authoring environments, but again, we don’t test our new releases against those environments because it’s too time consuming.
From your experience in this field, what are people’s greatest fears of interactivity in ebooks?
People always assume it’s either very hard, or very time consuming to put together. In reality, it doesn’t take special technical skills: if you can use MS Word, you can also use BookWidgets. Many of our widgets can be configured in less than a minute, so it’s also not particularly time consuming. By far the most time is spent in coming up with the content, and the lesson plan. But teachers need to do that anyway, so why not make a fun lesson, instead of a boring one?
We recently started going to schools, conferences and events to deliver hands-on workshops, to help people to overcome these fears. Time and time again, we’re seeing that it takes about 10 to 15 minutes for things to click and for people to become comfortable with the whole flow. They quickly become confident enough to start exploring on their own and by the end of the workshop, they’ve created 5 to 10 different widgets and really don’t need our help anymore.
Interactivity and book widgets have proven to be successful in education. How do you see the future of interactivity in trade/fiction books?
This is not my specialty, but with the advent of virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift, I’m expecting that movies and games will grow closer together and start to blend into each other. This will mean that movie plots won’t be purely linear anymore. I could see the same thing happening with blending books and games, so future books may not have purely linear plots anymore, but rather have interactive pieces, where the choices that the reader/player makes impact the rest of the storyline. But as mentioned, I’m far from an expert in this field, so who knows what might happen! I am convinced though that we’re still in the very early stages of this field, and that many interesting developments will be coming in the next couple of years.
There is an unpopular book widget format defined by the IDPF for the EPUB 3 specification. Have you heard of it? What do you think of it?
Sure, I’ve heard of it. It would be very good to have a standard level of support for interactive widgets in EPUB3 books, because the landscape today is very fragmented. Very few EPUB3 readers support widgets properly, making it hard for vendors like BookWidgets to guarantee widget support for EPUB3, and it also makes it hard for authors and publishers to use them, because they can’t control which readers their customers will use.
I’m not sure why this format is not seeing more wide spread adoption, but as is often the case with new standards, it just takes a while for everyone to adopt it. Some standards never gains decent traction for unclear reasons, so let’s hope that won’t happen in this case.
What are your future plans for bookwidgets.com?
I can’t get into too much detail here, but in general, we want to provide fun and effective learning experiences for students, and empower teachers to create engaging interactive lessons quickly and easily. So we’ll continue to build solutions that save teachers time, for instance by enabling them to collaborate with their peers. And we’ll continue to build new widgets and experiences for students that make learning more effective, personalized and fun.
Any last words for your readers?
We encourage everyone to try out BookWidgets, to see if the widgets we provide can enrich their Kotobee books. In addition, we’re happy to offer a gift-card which are good for 3 months of free and unlimited use of BookWidgets. This is available for the first 5 registered users. If you’re late, not to worry! You will still receive a 30 day free trial. Simply sign up through the URL below: