Kotobee: Developing Interactive Textbooks in Egypt

In Digital by Rachel Aydt

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Cairo-based Kotobee, sister company to BookBake, has launched a new tool for developing interactive textbooks in the Arab world.

By Rachel Aydt

There’s a new ebook engine in town by the name of Kotobee. It’s an “interactive ebook engine” that was launched on April 10 by Vijua, the same Cairo-based company that put out the Arabic-friendly ebook software Bookbake a couple of years ago. Kotobee software enables users to create multi-platform interactive ebooks “with all the study tools your user needs.” The typical user is a student whose textbook might include 3D images, augmented reality, video, audio, photo slideshows, interactive animations, and more.

“The primary targets are educational institutes who are moving along with digital learning,” says Ayman Abdel-Rahman, the Managing Director of Vijua. “Instead of having their ebooks be passive, they can now be responsive and interactive — especially science subjects.” In addition to more complicated textbooks, the secondary target demographic they have in mind is children’s interactive storybook developers. “We provide a number of tools that make it easy to create fun and responsive characters.”

Vijua’s mission statement is an inspiring one; indeed, the company sprang to life after the Arab Spring. “Inspired by game geeks and digital enthusiasts, we have a great passion for what we do and enjoy making ideas a reality. As much as possible, we put social/humanitarian value in our products that can give back to the society,” says their About Us statement. “We are maintaining a number of proprietary websites that have given knowledge and shared happiness with millions of users. We’re not just in it for the money, but for making a difference :)”  [smiley face SIC]

Kotobee will run on Android, iOS, web, or with desktop software. It’s a follow-up of the BookBake application, but enhanced and rebranded. “Today, to make an interactive ebook truly engaging, it needs to be developed individually case-by-case, to offer this rich experience,” explains Abdel-Rahman. “We aim to make this creation process easier by providing an interactive element toolbox, with drag-and-drop interface to reach a result similar to other platforms, but without requiring any technical skills — and without requiring people to pay large amounts of cash.”

In the promotional video on Kotobee’s website there is no dialogue or voice over, perhaps indicative of their hope to make it global in reach. Instead, we watch as students of various ages click onto their tablet textbooks to open up new windows expanding on the information on the page. Want to learn what a Taurine molecule is? Click, and you’re taken to a definition on Wikipedia. Tap on an image of a molecule, and a 3-D rendering of said molecule pops up on a new window. Watch it move in a full 360-degree circle, offering a more comprehensive understanding of its depth and scale. Younger students in the video appear to be taking a test from their tablets: they click and drag answers; they maneuver animation; they circle sections of pages as if they were taking notes.

“Interactivity within ebooks is the latest fashion in ebook technology. It is not something just for display, but rather a true contribution to the value of the information. Now, school and university students can have a hands-on experience within their ebooks instead of just reading passively,” says Abdel-Rahman. “They experience virtual labs, solve tests, watch demonstrations, hear audio clarifications, and interact with the ebook thoroughly.”

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Arabic…the Missing Link

While Vieja was managing BookBake, the Ministry of Telecommunications in Egypt sponsored them under the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) to extend the scale of BookBake and turn it into the full-fletched interactive ebook authoring tool that ended up being Kotobee. The goal of the ministry was a lofty one — to help the country’s educational system be competitive in the arena of interactive components.

After completing Kotobee, Ahmen-Abel’s team demonstrated its capabilities by creating one of the country’s “Technical Education” ebooks, “Programmable Logic Controllers.” The ebook will be used throughout the country’s Technical Education institutes. It’s a complex topic that benefitted greatly from the enhancements in the software. Instead of manually designing electrical circuits for a special need, programmable logic controllers provide a generic way to dynamically program an electrical circuit with coding. For this project, a variety of interactive elements were used. The labs’ PLC kit boards were rendered in 3D and made available for click-interaction. They’re also accessible through augmented reality, offering a more dynamic experience for students. Besides the standard multimedia elements (audio, video, galleries) a number of utilities were made available such as “Ask a question to the Instructor,” “Past examinations,” “Discussion rooms,” and a “Logic gate simulator.”

The note-taking functionality in Kotobee is personal to the student. All of his or her information is stored on their personal device; nothing is shared with anyone. This is why with Kotobee, no login is required, nor is any online account created for the student. All the text-highlights, bookmarks, and notes are stored onto the device itself.

It’s a global race to the interactive ebook finish line, and as far as these things go, Cairo’s still in the game.

About the Author

Rachel Aydt

Rachel Aydt is a full-time writer, editor and researcher in New York City. She worked on the staff at American Heritage Magazine, YM, Cosmopolitan and CosmoGirl. Rachel has also contributed to Time International and Inked magazines. Since 2001, she has taught writing classes at the New School University.