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A digital frontier: eTextbooks

By Larissa Krassovsky
On April 24, 2012

With the phase of iPads, Nooks and Kindles, eTextbooks are allowing faculty a new way to assign readings. Because of this, a group of over 100 scientists, instructors, scientific illustrators, interaction designers and faculty reviewers have been working on a digital textbook to bring their original vision to life, according to Vikram Savkar, senior vice president and publishing director of Nature Publishing Group, in an e-mail interview.

"The eBook "Principles of Biology" has not yet been adopted by Sonoma State University, but we would love faculty at SSU to take a look," said Savkar. "We think it has a lot of resources to offer."

"Principles of Biology" was created by Nature Publishing Group as the first in what publishers at Nature intend to be a broad series of interactive textbooks in the life and physical sciences, according to Savkar.

"We continually update the textbook, so even five years from now, the version that former students can access will reflect current biological information," said Savkar.

Students might be required to bring their laptops or smart phones to class sometimes to access the eBook, but Savkar anticipates that most of the in-depth study in the textbook will be done in their rooms or in the library.

He added that instructors will occasionally want to consult their book and even take tests while in class. Therefore, the fortunate thing about "Principles of Biology" is that it is accessible on just about any device, including smartphones, tablets and laptops, according to Savkar.

Savkar points out that the traditional textbook market is outdated because it comes down to the fact that the digital revolution has opened up new educational possibilities.

"These possibilities include continually updating the material in the textbook to reflect the changing state of science, using rich interactive exercises to make complex subjects easily comprehensible, giving instant feedback to students on their performance on self-tests and formal tests," said Savkar.

"It also allows instructors to easily customize textbooks to match the exact sequence and the way they would like to teach the material," he added.

There is only one version of the digital textbook that is not based off a hard copy. Savkar says that Nature feels very strongly that moving forward, the e-book should not be a digital companion to a traditional print textbook; rather it should be designed by publishers as the central resource the students use.

"This means that rather than building their entire editorial and authorship process around the goal of creating exclusively text and figures, publishers must put their creativity into delivering rich digital, interactive experiences," said Savkar. "And that is what we have done with the 'Principles of Biology.'"

There are many things to consider about requiring digital textbooks, according to Thomas Buckley, assistant professor of biology. Buckley believes it depends on if the book is of good value and if the content is right for the class.

"Choosing textbooks is never up to one faculty member and it is possible that we may consider requiring a digital textbook, but it is still a developing concept" said Buckley. "We as a department are aware of cost issues and we try to keep an eye on the options out there."

Another thing faculty is concerned about is whether or not students would have access to a hard copy of the digital textbook; in other words, if they would have a CD or just the Internet, according to Buckley.

The "Principles of Biology" does have the option of printing off the materials and carrying the hard copy, according to Molly Gerth, PR for "Principles of Biology" at TriplePoint.


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